Lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells generated by cultivation of C57BL/6 mouse spleen cells in the presence of recombinant interleukin-2 were transferred into natural killer (NK) cell-deficient suckling mouse recipients. These mice were then challenged with either murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV) or lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCMV) and sacrificed 3 days later. No interleukin 2 infusions were given. Mice receiving as few as 5 x 10(5) LAK cells had several 100-fold decreases in spleen MCMV titers as compared with untreated mice. This treatment had no effect on spleen LCMV titers. The LAK cell cultures contained 10 to 17% NK 1.1+, 50 to 55% Lyt-2+, and 33 to 50% immunoglobulin D+ cells. Double fluorescence labeling and in vitro cytotoxicity assays with fluorescence-activated cell sorting revealed at least two mutually exclusive killer cell populations. NK 1.1+ LAK cells resembled freshly isolated activated NK cells with regard to target cell range (YAC-1 cell killing greater than L-929, P815, and EL-4 cell killing), large granular lymphocyte (LGL) morphology, and decreased ability to lyse interferon (IFN)-treated target cells. Lyt-2+ LAK cells lysed the targets mentioned above but at lower levels and without the differences in susceptibility mentioned above. These Lyt-2+ LAK cells also had a decreased ability to lyse IFN-treated targets, in contrast to classic cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which lyse IFN-treated targets far more efficiently than untreated targets. Purified populations of LAK cells obtained by fluorescence-activated cell sorting were used in the antiviral protection model. The results showed that protection against MCMV could be mediated by NK 1.1+, NK 1.1-, Lyt-2+, Lyt-2-, and IgD- populations but not by IgD+ cells. The five protective populations all had in common the LGL phenotype and cytotoxic activity in vitro. The IgD+ population did not contain LGLs, lyse target cells in vitro, or mediate an antiviral effect in vivo. These results suggest that LAK cells may be therapeutically useful against certain virus infections (MCMV) but not others (LCMV) and that despite their heterogeneity in antigenic phenotype and cytotoxic activity, their pattern of antiviral activity in vivo resembles that of NK cells, which protect against MCMV but not LCMV.