We report evidence that FcR(CD16) on human NK cells are signal-transducing molecules that, upon ligand binding, induce transcription of genes encoding surface activation molecules [IL-2-R(CD25)] and cytokines (IFN-gamma and TNF) relevant to NK cell biology and functions. Homogeneous NK and T cell populations purified from short-term bulk cultures of PBMC with irradiated B lymphoblastoid cell lines were cultured in the presence of FcR ligands (particulate immune complexes or immobilized anti-CD16 antibodies) alone or with rIL-2. Upon 18 h of stimulation, NK cells express Tac, TfR, and 4F2 antigens and produce IFN-gamma and TNF; both effects are synergistically enhanced in the presence of rIL-2, which is itself ineffective. Treatment of NK cells with FcR(CD16) ligands induces accumulation of mRNA for IFN-gamma and TNF and, to a lesser extent, IL-2-R with fast kinetics also in the absence of de novo protein synthesis. rIL-2 and FcR(CD16) ligands synergize to induce mRNA accumulation. mRNA accumulation and transcription of TNF and IFN-gamma genes induced by FcR(CD16) ligands are greater than those induced by rIL-2, and the reverse is true for IL-2-R. The two stimuli do not synergize at the transcriptional level. These observations indicate that the mechanisms through which FcR(CD16) ligands and rIL-2 induce NK cell activation are, in part, distinct. Both operate at the transcriptional level, although other mechanisms are probably induced by the FcR ligand stimulus per se or in combination with other lymphokines and synergize at a post-transcriptional or translational level to enhance NK cell activation.