Recognition of major histocompatibility complex class I molecules by natural killer (NR) cells leads to inhibition of target cell lysis. Based on the capacity of different human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA)-C and HLA-B molecules to inhibit target cell lysis by NK lines and clones, three NK allospecificities have been defined: NK1 and NK2 cells are inhibited by different HLA-C allotypes and NK3 cells by some HLA-B allotypes. The NK1 and NK2 inhibitory ligands on target cells correspond to a dimorphism of HLA-C at residues 77 and 80 in the alpha 1 helix: Asn77-Lys80 in NK1 and Ser77-Asn80 in NK2 inhibitory ligands. It has been reported that protection from NK1 killers depended on the presence of the Lys residue at position 80, an upward pointing residue near the end of the alpha 1 helix (and not on Asn77), whereas inhibition of NK2 effector cells required Ser77, a residue deep in the F pocket and interacting with the peptide (and not Asn80). As part of ongoing experiments to investigate the structural requirements for NK cell inhibition by HLA-C locus alleles, we also examined the effects of mutations at residues 77 and 80 on the ability of HLA-C alleles to confer protection from NK lysis. We present data confirming that the NK1 specificity depended on Lys80 (and not on Asn77); however recognition of NK2 ligands by NK cells was also controlled by the amino acid at position 80 (Asn), and mutation of Ser77 had no effect. Furthermore, bound peptide was shown to be unnecessary for the inhibition of NK cell-mediated lysis since HLA-C molecules assembled in the absence of peptide in RMA-S cells at 26 degrees C were fully competent to inhibit NK cells specifically. The implications of these data for peptide-independent recognition of HLA-C by NK receptors are discussed.