Precursors of activated killer (AK) cells cytotoxic for human noncultured metastatic melanoma and colon carcinoma were characterized. These cells required 3 days incubation with recombinant interleukin 2 (rIL 2) and DNA synthesis for the induction of AK activity. Both negative and positive cell purification methods were used to identify the subpopulation of cells containing AK precursors. By complement-mediated cell depletion studies, AK precursors were largely present in the Leu-11+ fraction, and to a much lesser extent in the Leu-7+ and Leu-2a+ fractions; they were absent in Leu-3a+ and Leu-4+ cells. Lymphocyte subpopulations were then purified with a cell sorter to positively select for the subset containing AK precursors. Leu-11+ cells had the highest level of AK activity and proliferative response when cultured for 3 days with rIL 2 as well as the highest level of NK activity before culture. Leu-7+ cells had neither AK activity nor a proliferative response when cultured with rIL 2, although they still possessed high NK activity. The same levels of AK and NK activity were found in Leu-2a+ and Leu-2a- fractions, but both activities were absent among Leu-4+ and Leu-3a+ cells. Further fractionation with a two-step sorting technique showed that the highest AK activity resided in the Leu-7-Leu-11+ cell fraction. Morphologically, this subfraction was granular lymphocytes. Titration experiments or rIL 2-responsive cells showed that the number of cells required to achieve a comparable level of rIL 2 proliferative response were as follows: 35 X 10(3) cells from unseparated PBL, 10 X 10(3) cells from Leu-11+ cells, 3.3 X 10(3) from Leu-7-Leu-11+ cells, and 640 X 10(3) cells from Leu-7+ cells. These results indicate that the lymphocyte subpopulation that proliferates in the presence of rIL 2 and then develops AK activity was a subpopulation of Leu-11+ granular lymphocytes, which also possessed the highest NK activity. These Leu-11+ cells lacked the antigens defined by the Leu-7, Leu-3a, or Leu-4 antibodies. Although Leu-7+ cells did not respond to rIL 2 by themselves, they may play a role in the induction of AK activity.