Granules isolated from CTL and NK cells contain a cytolytic pore-forming protein (PFP/perforin). At low temperatures (on ice), PFP binds to erythrocyte membranes without producing hemolysis. Hemolysis occurs when the PFP-bound erythrocytes are warmed up to 37 degrees C, which defines a temperature-dependent, lytic (pore-formation) step distinct from the membrane-binding event. Ca2+ and neutral pH are required for both membrane binding and pore formation by PFP. Serum, LDL, HDL, and heparin inhibit the hemolytic activity of PFP by blocking its binding to lipid membranes. Lysis by PFP that has bound to erythrocyte membranes is no longer susceptible to the effect of these inhibitors. The hemolytic activities associated with intact granules and solubilized PFP show different requirements for Ca2+ and pH, indicating that cytolysis produced by isolated granules may involve an additional step, possibly fusion of granules with membranes. It is suggested that three distinct Ca2+- and pH-dependent events may be involved during cell killing by CTL and NK cells: fusion of cytoplasmic granules of effector cells with their plasma membrane, releasing PFP from cells; binding of the released PFP to target membranes; and insertion of monomers and the subsequent formation of lytic pores in the target membrane. The serum-mediated inhibition of membrane binding by PFP could prevent the accidental injury of bystander cells by cell-released PFP, but would allow cytolysis to proceed to completion once PFP has bound to the target membrane.