The in vitro effects of human NK cells on viability of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria was investigated. PBLs depleted of glass-adherent cells showed a significant antibacterial activity that was increased as the concentration of NK cells became higher. Leu-11-enriched cells exhibited the most efficient bactericidal activity. Stimulation of NK cells with staphylococcal enterotoxin B for 16 h produced a significant increase in the antibacterial activity of all NK cells tested. The antibacterial activity of monocyte-depleted cells and Leu-11-enriched cells was also enhanced after culturing in vitro for 16-24 h without exogenous cytokines. Dependence of the antibacterial activity on the presence of serum in the culture medium was not found. Ultrastructural studies revealed close contact between NK cell membranes and bacteria, no evidence of phagocytosis, and extracellular bacterial ghosts, after incubation at 37 degrees C. Supernatants from purified NK cells exhibited potent bactericidal activity with kinetics and target specificity similar to that of effector cells. These results document the potent antibacterial activity of purified NK cells and suggest an extracellular mechanism of killing.