Target cell expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules correlates with resistance to lysis by natural killer (NK) cells. Prior functional studies of the murine NK cell surface molecule, Ly-49, suggested its role in downregulating NK cell cytotoxicity by specifically interacting with target cell H-2Dd molecules. In support of this hypothesis, we now demonstrate a physical interaction between H-2Dd and Ly-49 in both qualitative and quantitative cell-cell binding assays employing a stable transfected Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell line expressing Ly-49 and MHC class I transfected target cells. Binding occurred only when CHO cells expressed Ly-49 at high levels and targets expressed H-2Dd by transfection. Monoclonal antibody blocking experiments confirmed this interaction. These studies indicate that the specificity of natural killing is influenced by NK cell receptors that engage target cell MHC class I molecules.