Infection of mice with the protozoan Leishmania major provides an excellent model to define the factors involved in T helper (Th) subset development, since Th1 cells confer protection in resistant strains of mice, whereas Th2 cells are associated with the fatal outcome of susceptible mice. We previously found that interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) was required for Th1 cell development after infection of mice with L. major. In this report, we evaluate the contribution of natural killer (NK) cells to IFN-gamma levels early in L. major infection. NK cell activity was higher in resistant C3H/HeN mice than in susceptible BALB/c mice during the first week of infection, and removal of NK cells significantly decreased IFN-gamma levels and promoted interleukin 4 (IL-4) production in both the draining lymph nodes and spleen. IFN-gamma production by NK cells required the presence of CD4+ T cells or IL-2, but not CD8+ T cells. Enhanced disease, as measured by parasite numbers and lesion development, was observed in NK cell-depleted mice. Furthermore, a comparison of the NK cell response and the subsequent parasite burden in several inbred strains of mice demonstrated that NK cells mediate early resistance to L. major. Together, these data indicate that the stimulation of NK cells, through the production of IFN-gamma, plays an important role in initiating Th1 cell differentiation in leishmaniasis and in controlling early resistance to L. major.