In vitro culture of human peripheral blood lymphocytes in IL-2 results in the generation of cytotoxic cells that can lyse fresh and cultured solid tumor cells, as well as hematopoietic tumor cell lines, without deliberate immunization or MHC restriction. This has been referred to as the lymphokine activated killer (LAK) phenomenon. Here, we show that the majority of this activity is mediated by NK cells that express the Leu-19 (NKH-1) antigen, but do not express CD3. The precursor of this effector population also expressed the phenotype CD3-, Leu-19+. Peripheral blood CD3+ T lymphocytes contributed little to the LAK phenomenon, although low levels of non-MHC restricted cytotoxicity against hematopoietic tumor cell targets were mediated by a subset of CD3+ T lymphocytes that coexpressed the Leu-19 antigen. These studies clearly indicated that the LAK phenomenon is not mediated by a unique LAK cell, but is mediated mainly by IL-2-activated peripheral blood NK cells.