We carried out adoptive transfer studies to determine the role of natural killer (NK) cells in resistance to murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV) and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). We transferred leukocytes from adult mice into suckling mice 1 d before injecting them with virus. Resistance was measured by enhancement of survival and reduction of virus multiplication in the spleens of recipient mice. The phenotype of the cell population capable of mediating resistance to MCMV was that of a nylon wool-nonadherent, asialo GM1+, NK 1.2+, Ly-5+, Thy-1-, Ia-, low density lymphocyte; this is the phenotype of an NK cell. Cloned NK cells, but not cloned T cells, provided resistance to MCMV in suckling mice. Cloned NK cells also provided resistance to MCMV in irradiated adult mice, and antibody to asialo GM1, which depletes NK cell activity in vivo, enhanced the synthesis of MCMV in athymic nude mice. Neither adult leukocytes nor cloned NK cells influenced LCMV synthesis in suckling mice. We conclude that a general property of NK cells may be to provide natural resistance to virus infections, and that NK cells can protect mice from MCMV but not from LCMV.