The putative factors that couple the signal transduction from surface receptors to the activation of cytokine synthesis in natural killer (NK) cells have not been elucidated. We report here that the nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFATp), a cyclosporin A (CsA)-sensitive factor that regulates the transcription of several cytokines, mediates CD16-induced activation of cytokine genes in human NK cells. CD16 (Fc gamma RIIIA)-induced expression of cytokine mRNA in NK cells occurs via a CsA-sensitive and Ca(2+)-dependent mechanism. Stimulation of NK cells with CD16 ligands induces NFAT-like DNA binding activity in the nuclear extracts from these cells, as detected in electrophoretic mobility shift assays. This occurs with fast kinetics after stimulation, via a CsA-sensitive and Ca(2+)-dependent mechanism that does not require de novo protein synthesis. NK cell NFAT is present in the cytosol of nonstimulated cells, migrates to the nucleus upon stimulation, and can associate with AP-1. Two distinct molecules, NFATp and NFATc, have been reported to mediate NFAT activity. The results of supershift assays using NFATp- and NFATc- specific antibodies indicate that NK cell activation early after CD16 ligand binding involves primarily, if not exclusively, NFATp, and Western blot analysis shows that this has the same electrophoretic mobility (approximately 120 kD) as that of T lymphocytes. NK cells do not express NFATc constitutively, but NFATc mRNA accumulation is induced in these cells within 2 h of stimulation with CD16 ligands. However, supershift assays using the available mAb recognizing the T cell NFATc revealed no detectable NFATc protein in nuclear and cytoplasmic extracts from CD16- or phorbol ester-stimulated cells at any time tested, up to 4 h. These results provide the first direct evidence that both CsA-sensitive transcription factors, NFATp and NFATc, are expressed in human NK cells, and that their activation and/or expression can be regulated in primary cells by a single stimulus, that, in the case of CD16 in NK cells, results in early activation of NFATp and subsequently induced expression of NFATc mRNA.