We investigated the susceptibility of cells infected with human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) to lysis by human natural killer (NK) cells, examining in particular its relationship to sequential viral protein expression, interferon (IFN), and the nature of the effector cells. HCMV-infected fibroblasts were lysed by peripheral blood mononuclear cells from normal seronegative individuals. The effector cells were large granular lymphocytes of Leu-7+, Leu-11+, and to a lesser extent Leu-7- phenotype. Depletion studies suggested they were the same population of NK cells that lyse uninfected fibroblasts, but a subset of NK cells that lyse K562 cells. HCMV-infected cells treated with phosphonoformate and cells infected for 16 hr that only express the nonstructural HCMV immediate early and early proteins and not the late (structural) proteins were susceptible to lysis by IFN-pretreated effector cells, whereas cells expressing immediate early antigens alone were not. This enhanced susceptibility to lysis was associated with increased effector:target binding in target cell binding assays, and was competitively inhibited by uninfected fibroblasts in cold target competition assays. It was independent of IFN release from the infected target cells or effector cells. These results suggest that the increased susceptibility to lysis by NK cells produced by a human herpes virus HCMV i) is manifest when early viral proteins are expressed, ii) is related to enhanced expression of a target structure likely to be present on uninfected fibroblasts, and iii) has a major component that is independent of IFN.