Guanine ribonucleosides, substituted at the C8 position with either a bromine or a thiol group, have recently been shown to regulate several immunologic responses. We have previously shown that 8-mercaptoguanosine (8MG) can replace the requirement for cytokines in the generation of MHC-restricted CTL. In this paper, we examined the ability of 8MG to induce MHC-nonrestricted killer cells. We found that 8MG did not induce significant lytic activity from normal resting lymphocytes. However, 8MG was able to synergize with minimal amounts of IL-2 in inducing lytic activity similar to lymphokine-activated killers (LAK) in that both NK-sensitive and NK-resistant tumor cells were killed. Both the precursors and effectors of 8MG-LAK activity were similar to NK cells and were CD4- CD8- asialo-GM1+ NK1.1+. Similar to IL-2-induced LAK, 8MG-LAK were B220+. 8MG appeared to "stage" these precursor lymphocytes to become more responsive to IL-2 because optimal induction of 8MG-LAK required preincubation with 8MG before the addition of IL-2. This "staging" appeared to be due to the release of a "second signal" since it was readily inhibited by cyclosporine A. Anti-IFN-alpha beta was as efficient as cyclosporine A in inhibiting 8MG-LAK generation, whereas anti-IFN-gamma and anti-IL-1 did not exhibit significant inhibition. These findings suggest that 8MG can be of possible utility as an IL-2-sparing agent in LAK generation from NK cells.