The ability of natural killer (NK) cells to recognize and reject transplants has so far been shown in hematopoietic grafts only. This study was designed to ascertain whether NK cells may also be involved in the rejection of transplanted organs. In most rat strain combinations, immunization with allogeneic cells induces a T cell response with cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activation. We have previously found one exception to this. In contrast to Wistar Furth rats (WF, RT1u), which manifest allospecific CTL activation in response to immunization with Brown Norway (BN, RT1n) cells, BN rats immunized with repeated intraperitoneal (i.p.) injections of allogeneic WF spleen cells manifest activation of alloreactive NK effector cells. The alloreactive NK cells were of the TCR-, CD3-, CD8+, and NKR-P1 intermediate phenotype and killed target cells with alloselectivity. In this study we used a heart transplantation model to study the rejection response of BN rats receiving WF grafts. NK cell infiltration was greater in WF hearts transplanted to BN recipients than in BN hearts transplanted to WF recipients. Furthermore, the extent of T cell infiltration was less in BN recipients. In WF rats transplanted with allogeneic BN hearts, CTL were activated in response to i.p. challenge with allogeneic BN cells, whereas BN rats transplanted with allogeneic WF hearts and i.p. challenged with allogeneic WF cells, manifested activation of alloreactive NK cells but no measurable activation of classic CTL. The alloreactive NK cells killed their allogeneic targets with specificity and with potency comparable to that of CTL. Furthermore, WF grafts were rejected in BN recipients as efficiently as were BN grafts in WF recipients. These results not only show cardiac allografts to be able to activate alloreactive NK cells, but also suggest that NK cells may be involved in the rejection of solid organ transplants and function as classic CTL in certain donor-recipient combinations.