After marrow transplantation, major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-unrestricted natural killer (NK) lymphocytes are among the first cells to appear in the circulation. After T-cell-depleted bone marrow transplantation (TD-BMT), these cells have an activated pattern of target cell killing; they also secrete lymphokines including gamma-interferon (gamma-IFN), interleukin-2 (IL-2), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and may have a significant role as a primary defense against viral reactivation and in the elimination of residual host malignancy. We studied 43 patients with hematologic malignancy, treated by allogeneic TD-BMT, autologous nondepleted BMT, or chemotherapy alone to investigate (a) the mechanisms underlying the generation of these activated killer cells, (b) the range of conditions under which they are produced, and (c) their surface phenotype. We showed that gamma-IFN-secreting activated killer cells with the capacity to kill MHC-nonidentical NK-resistant targets are generated 4 to 6 weeks after either allogeneic TD-BMT or autologous BMT but do not appear after treatment with chemotherapy. Production therefore is not owing to T-cell depletion per se or to host donor alloreactivity, nor is it caused by stimulation by alloantigens contained in blood product support since no significant difference exists between allograft and chemotherapy patients in the number of units of blood platelet support given in the posttreatment period. Because most patients had no evidence of stimulation from virus reactivation/infection, the phenomenon of activation therefore appears to represent posttransplant immune disregulation following repopulation of the host immune system with lymphoid subsets derived exclusively from blood and marrow. Activated killing is predominantly mediated by the CD16+ CD3- subset, but substantial activity remains in the CD16- CD3+ cell fraction. Monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) that block interaction with class-I MHC molecules at the level of target cell (W6/32 anti-HLA class I) or effector cell (CD8) do not inhibit killing by CD16- CD3+ cells. Activated killer cells may contribute to the lower risk of relapse after marrow transplantation as compared with intensive chemotherapy.