CTL and NK cells cultured in vitro are known to produce a cytolytic pore-forming protein (PFP, perforin) localized in their cytoplasmic granules. Using purified perforin, we showed here that both cloned CTL and primary killer cell populations, including allospecific CTL, NK/lymphokine-activated killer cells, and MHC-non-restricted CTL, were more resistant to perforin-mediated killing than other lymphocyte populations and cell types. Similar results were obtained with both murine and human cytolytic lymphocyte populations. Resistance of killer cells to perforin correlated in general with their cytolytic capability. Thus, cells that have acquired competence to kill after stimulation with Con A, IL-2, or leukocyte-conditioned medium, were also the more resistant cells. IL-2-independent CTL lines and hybridomas derived in our laboratories could be triggered to become cytotoxic and perforin resistant by short-term stimulation with various cytokines, indicating that the acquisition of resistance to perforin-mediated lysis was independent of cell proliferation. Activation of one IL-2-independent CTL line with IL-2 also resulted in enhanced production of perforin and in enhanced serine esterase activity. The acquisition of cell resistance to perforin by these IL-2-independent cell lines after activation with stimulatory reagents was independent of protein and RNA neosynthesis: emetine, cycloheximide, and actinomycin D, while effectively blocking the incorporation of [35S]methionine into cell proteins, did not affect the induced increase in perforin resistance.