NK cells preferentially kill normal embryonic fibroblasts. Because embryonic cells are growth factor responsive and maintain high proliferative rates, we examined the requirement for growth factor-initiated proliferation for NK susceptibility. Murine embryonic fibroblasts made quiescent in defined medium lacking growth factors were relatively resistant to NK cytolysis. However, reinitiation of proliferation with basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) or epidermal growth factor enhanced lysis in a dose-dependent fashion. TGF-beta, which blocked cell division, did not enhance cytotoxicity. Additionally, growth inhibition by prolonged incubation at confluence suppressed lysis. The enhanced NK cytotoxicity of bFGF-stimulated fibroblasts was caused by a post-binding event because no difference in cold target inhibition could be demonstrated with bFGF-treated cells. NK cytotoxicity has largely been attributed to the action of cytotoxins released from cytoplasmic granules. In a 51Cr release assay, bFGF-treated fibroblasts were insensitive to NK granules isolated from the RNK large granular lymphocyte leukemia. However, these same cells exhibited marked sensitivity to lysis in an 18-h adhesion assay normally utilized to detect TNF-alpha. With the use of this assay, a dose-dependent increase in sensitivity of bFGF-treated fibroblasts was observed, whereas quiescent fibroblasts were resistant to the action of isolated NK granules. Granule cytotoxicity was not caused by cytolysin/perforin because inactivation of granule hemolytic activity with CaCl2 did not affect fibroblast killing, and bFGF-treated cells were insensitive to purified cytolysin/perforin. This suggested that another granule associated cytotoxin was responsible for enhanced NK sensitivity of actively proliferating fibroblasts.