Natural killer cells lyse tumor and virally infected cells in a specific manner that has not been molecularly characterized. Target cell expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules is correlated with target cell resistance to natural killing. A mechanism to explain this observation is that NK cells may display two types of recognition and activation molecules that have opposing functions when bound to target cell ligands. One type of surface receptor such as the NKR-P1 molecule may activate NK activity whereas the other, represented by the mouse Ly-49 molecule, may engage target cell MHC molecules and inhibit cytotoxicity by transducing "negative" signals. NKR-P1 and Ly-49 are structurally related, and they are encoded by genetically linked loci in a chromosomal region, termed the NK gene complex (NKC), on distal mouse chromosome 6. Target cell susceptibility to natural killing may be dependent upon specific ligand-receptor interaction with these activating or inhibitory NKC-encoded molecules.