Metazoan organisms may discriminate between self and non-self not only by the presence of foreign antigens but also by the absence of normal self markers. Mammalian adaptive immune responses use the first strategy, with the additional requirement that foreign antigens are recognized in the context of self-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) products at the cell surface. Aberrant cells which fail to express MHC products adequately can therefore avoid detection. A more primitive but complementary defence system, eliminating such cells on the basis of absent self-markers, is suggested by a re-interpretation of phenomena associated with metastasis and natural resistance. We now show that murine lymphoma cells selected for loss of H-2 expression are less malignant after low-dose inoculation in syngeneic hosts than are wild-type cells, and that the rejection of such cells is non-adaptive. On the basis of our data, we suggest that natural killer cells are effector cells in a defence system geared to detect the deleted or reduced expression of self-MHC.