Fetal porcine islet-like cell clusters (ICC) were transplanted under the renal capsule of normoglycemic normal or athymic (nu/nu) C57BL/6 mice. Control animals were implanted with allogeneic minced kidney tissue from C57BL/Ks mice. The animals were killed 6 or 14 days after transplantation and the grafts were processed for flow cytometric analyses or immunohistochemistry. Xenograft destruction was evident in normal mice on day 6 after transplantation. The majority of infiltrating cells were macrophage-like cells expressing the F4/80 antigen. Lymphocytes expressing the CD3 antigen were in minority and mainly located in the peripheral parts of the ICC xenograft. The frequency and distribution of CD4+ cells were found to resemble those of the CD3+ cells. A large number of infiltrating cells, including several macrophage-like cells, expressed the Thy 1.2 antigen. Flow cytometry of infiltrating cells in the ICC xenograft revealed that approximately half of the cells expressing the F4/80 antigen also expressed Thy 1.2 and/or CD4. No cells were found expressing both the F4/80 and CD8 antigens. Both the F4/80 single-positive and the F4/80, CD4 double-positive cells were found to be larger and more granular than the CD4 single-positive cells. No co-expression of CD4 or Thy 1.2 with the F4/80 antigen was detected on cells infiltrating allogeneic tissue grafts. Moreover, a relative large number of cells (approximately 15%) in the xenograft expressed the NK 1.1 antigen as determined by flow cytometry. The role of natural killer (NK) cells in islet xenograft rejection was further evaluated in mice depleted of NK cells, using intraperitoneal injections of the monoclonal antibody NK 1.1. The simultaneous inoculation and subsequent growth of the NK cell-sensitive beta 2-microglobulin-deficient mutant, C4.4-25-, lymphoma cell line EL-4 served as an in vivo control of NK cell depletion. However, all NK cell-depleted mice rejected the ICC xenograft. In contrast, athymic mice permanently accepted the porcine ICC xenograft but, readily rejected the NK cell-sensitive lymphoma cell line. Taken together, ICC xenograft rejection in mice seems to be T cell dependent, as evidenced in the nude mice model, while the main effector cell appears to be a macrophage with a unique phenotype.