Lymphocyte-mediated cytotoxicity has been proposed to consist of the polarized secretion of granule-stored perforin leading to target-cell lysis. Nevertheless, perforin-independent pathways were postulated to explain the cytolytic activity of apparently perforin-free lymphocytes and the DNA degradation found in dying target cells. To evaluate the role of perforin, we used gene targeting in embryonic stem cells to produce mice lacking perforin. Mice homozygous for the disrupted gene have no perforin mRNA. The mice are healthy. Activation and granzyme A secretion of perforin-free cytolytic T cells are unaltered. The killing activity of cytolytic T cells as well as natural killer (NK) cells, however, is impaired but not abolished. Approximately one-third of the killing activity remains when lysis of 3T3 fibroblast targets and the apoptotic cell death of YAC-1 NK targets are analyzed. We conclude that perforin is a crucial effector molecule in T cell- and NK cell-mediated cytolysis. However, alternative perforin-independent lytic mechanisms also exist.