In the present study we have identified and characterized three subpopulations of peripheral blood NK cells based on the surface expression of CD56 and CD16. We have designated these subsets CD16neg, CD16dim, and CD16bright according to the relative surface density of CD16. The CD16bright subset comprised about 10% to 15% of PBL, whereas the CD16dim and CD16neg subsets comprise less than 1% of the total lymphocytes. A detailed characterization of these subsets revealed both similarities and differences. The three subsets shared a great deal of phenotypic similarity, expressing CD2, CD7, CD11b, CD38, CD45R, CD18, and the p75 IL-2R on the majority of the cells in each subset. There were, however, several prominent phenotypic differences, particularly in the expression of CD57, CD11c, CD44, CD25, Leu-8, L263, and L265. The CD16neg cells were morphologically large agranular lymphocytes and demonstrated low levels of non-MHC restricted cytolysis of NK-sensitive tumor lines. The CD16dim and CD16bright subsets were large granular lymphocytes and revealed potent cytotoxicity against NK-sensitive targets. All subsets demonstrated IL-2-dependent activation and proliferation; however, the CD16dim and CD16neg subsets were preferentially responsive to very low concentrations of rIL-2. Although rIL-4 effectively inhibited the IL-2-induced cytolytic activation of all three NK cell subsets, only the CD16bright cells showed rIL-4 inhibition of IL-2 dependent proliferation. Cytokine transcription was also differentially regulated in the NK cell subsets after rIL-2 activation. Although TNF-alpha was equally transcribed in each subsets, IFN-gamma and serine protease-HF were preferentially transcribed in the CD16bright NK cells. Based on these results, we propose that these NK cell subsets represent portions of the NK cell differentiation pathway present in the peripheral blood.