Although NK cells can kill both malignant cells and virus-infected cells without prior sensitization, it has remained unclear whether the mechanism by which an NK cell is activated in the presence of a tumor cell is similar to that induced by the presence of a virus-infected cell. In our experimental system using homogeneous populations of cloned human CD16+ NK cells, we found that HSV-infected target cells do not induce in the NK cells the same pharmacologically-active second messengers elicited by NK-sensitive tumor cells. Although phosphoinositide turnover and calcium signaling were generated in NK cells exposed to NK-sensitive tumor cells, the recognition of HSV-infected cells by NK cells did not result in similar transmembrane signaling. Furthermore, depending on the cell type infected by HSV, alternative mechanisms of cytotoxicity were employed. HSV-infected foreskin fibroblasts were rapidly and selectively killed by cloned NK cells without a requirement for IFN or accessory cells. In contrast to this direct cytotoxicity against HSV-infected foreskin fibroblasts, NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity against an HSV-infected fibrosarcoma cell line (1591) was dependent on IFN-alpha production by accessory cells. Importantly, in both systems of cytotoxicity, IFN-alpha activation of NK cells resulted in augmented killing against both infected and uninfected targets. These results suggest that NK cell activation induced during antiviral immunity is distinct from activation elicited during an antitumor response. These differences include the utilization of alternative forms of signal transduction and alternative mechanisms of cytotoxicity.