NK cells mediate both direct cytotoxicity against a variety of tumor cells and indirect (FcR-dependent) cytotoxicity against antibody-coated targets. When cloned human NK cells (CD16+/CD3-) were exposed to NK-sensitive targets for 30 min, the level of inositol phosphates rose two to five times above background. The rise in inositol phosphates induced by NK-sensitive targets was paralleled by an increase in intracellular free calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i). A panel of tumor cells that were resistant to NK cell lysis did not stimulate significant levels of inositol phosphate production and did not induce an elevation of intracellular free calcium. Ligation of the FcR (CD16) with the mAb 3G8 also triggered phosphoinositide turnover. Kinetic experiments demonstrated that stimulation by either susceptible target cells or by FcR ligation led to rapid (less than 1 min) generation of the Ca2+-mobilizing second messenger, inositol trisphosphate, with slower accumulation of inositol bisphosphate and inositol monophosphate. Previous studies have demonstrated that activation of the cAMP-dependent second messenger pathway strongly inhibits NK cell-mediated cytotoxic functions. Treatment of NK effector cells with forskolin to elevate intracellular cAMP levels resulted in a concentration-dependent inhibition of phosphoinositide hydrolysis induced by both NK-sensitive targets and 3G8-mediated FcR ligation. These results suggest that phosphoinositide turnover represents a critical early event in the human NK cell cytolytic process. Moreover, the potent inhibitory effect of cAMP on NK cell cytotoxicity may be explained by the uncoupling of NK receptors from phospholipase C-mediated phosphoinositide hydrolysis.