The cytotoxic capacity of resting, interleukin-2 (IL-2)-stimulated and in vitro cultured (3-5 days in 10 U/ml IL-2 containing media) peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs) from breast cancer patients to a panel of established mammary tumor cell lines was ascertained. Significant cytolysis (ranging from 7.8 to 12.4%, at an effector: target ratio of 20:1) of all mammary tumor targets (MCF-7, 734B, ZR-75-1, ZR-75-30, BT-20 and Hs578T) by PBLs was demonstrable in 18 h chromium release assays. Natural killer (NK) cytotoxicity was distinct from IL-2 stimulated (5 U/ml) and in vitro cultured PBL cytotoxicity in that resting PBLs were not cytolytic to RAJI cells, normal breast epithelia (Hs578Bst) and fibroblasts. Basal NK activity against mammary tumor targets was significantly reduced in patients receiving chemotherapy when compared to both untreated patients and normal controls. In criss-cross cold target inhibition studies, ZR-75-1 and K562 targets were not mutually competitive in NK cell assays (using resting PBLs) but were mutually competitive in lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) assays (using in vitro cultured PBLs). In eleven independent experiments, basal NK activity of ZR-75-1 cells was increased by a cold target excess of K562 (8.2 +/- 2.4% vs 30.5 +/- 5.2%, mean +/- SE, p greater than 0.01, cold:hot target ratio = 10:1). Interestingly, no such parallel increase of cytolysis of 734B targets by K562 cells was observed. Basal cytotoxicity against ZR-75-1 and K562 targets was serologically depleted using antibodies to natural killer cells HNK-1 and Leu 11b. Thus mammary tumor cell lines parallel autologous tumor cells, yet show features that are distinct from NK-resistant and sensitive lymphoid cell lines in their susceptibility to natural resistant cytolytic mechanisms.