Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 20 Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetic patients were examined for natural killer cell activity using the K562 cell line as 51Cr labeled targets. Mean natural killer cell cytotoxicity mediated by enriched non-T cells from patients (37 +/- 4.0%) was lower (p less than 0.03) than in controls (56 +/- 3.7%). Specificity was evaluated by examining other patient subgroups. Mean non-T cell mediated natural killer cell activity in Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent) diabetic patients and Type 1 patients with long term disease was 65 +/- 5.4% and 62 +/- 4.8% respectively (p less than 0.003 vs new onset Type 1 patients). Longitudinal studies of new onset Type 1 patients during the remission (honeymoon) phase revealed persistently impaired natural killer cell activity in 3 of 4 patients. In 30 new onset and 11 remission Type 1 diabetic patients, mean non-T cell-mediated cytotoxicity was also measured using dispersed 51Cr labeled islet target cells. Mean islet cytotoxicity mediated by cells from new onset patients was 34 +/- 2.4%, whereas in non-diabetic control subjects mean cytotoxicity was 25 +/- 1.8% (p less than 0.005). During remission, islet cytotoxicity remained at similar or elevated levels in most patients. In patients evaluated simultaneously for K562 and islet cell cytotoxicity, natural killer cell activity was decreased, whereas islet killing was increased. These results suggest a dichotomy in natural killer cell and islet killer cell activities in new onset Type 1 diabetes that could have an important role in the pathogenesis of Type diabetes.