IL-2 has been examined for its ability to regulate lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) activity. IL-2 is a potent activator of cytolytic activity against a wide array of tumor cells, including those from fresh autologous and allogeneic tumors. Using subpopulations of lymphoid cells that were separated on Percoll density gradients, and subsequently purified by immunoadsorbance, studies were performed to examine the phenotypes of progenitor and effector cells of human LAK cells and to compare them with the phenotype of activated NK cells. From these studies, it was evident that several lymphoid subsets, including CD3+, CDw16- and CD3-, CDw16+ cells could mediate LAK lysis of fresh tumor cells. Our examination of the kinetics of activation revealed that CDw16+, NKH1+ (NK-active) cells were maximally activated by 1-2 d. In contrast, CD3+ cells appeared not to achieve maximal cytolytic activity against fresh and cultured tumor cells until days 2-3. Using limiting-dilution frequency analysis, we showed that a large percentage of cytolytically active progenitors was present among the CDw16+, NKH1+ cells. The progenitor and effector cell frequencies appear to be 10-50 times higher in these populations compared to CD3+ cells. In addition, the selective blockage by mAb to the CD3 determinant of the T cell receptor complex indicated that these two effector cell phenotypes relied on different receptors to mediate their cytotoxic activity against tumor cells. Therefore, the accumulated data suggest that there is not a single unique progenitor of LAK activity, but rather that multiple subsets of lymphocytes become cytotoxic in response to IL-2. However, the NK cell population forms the largest single component of LAK cell activity in human peripheral blood.