Previous studies have shown that target cells that bind to CD44 adhesion molecules on cloned cytotoxic T cells are lysed by the CTL. To determine whether CD44 is also a cytotoxic trigger molecule in human PBL, we tested a bispecific Ab consisting of anti-CD44 Fab cross-linked to a Fab against a target cell Ag, in cytotoxicity assays using PBL as effectors. We found that PBL mediated lysis in the presence of the anti-CD44 bispecific Ab provided that the effector cells were stimulated with either IL-2 or IL-12. Cell fractionation experiments showed that CD44-directed cytolysis was mediated exclusively by CD56+ low buoyant density cells, mainly by NK (CD16+) cells, but also to a lesser extent by CD56+ T cells. CD44-directed cytolysis appeared in these subsets 24 to 48 h after addition of IL-2 and paralleled the acquisition of Ab-independent (LAK) activity; in contrast, these cells mediated Ab-dependent cellular cytotoxicity and CD3 redirected lysis before stimulation with IL-2. Unstimulated CD56+ cells uniformly expressed high levels of CD44 that increased modestly after incubation with IL-2. No changes in isoform expression in the extracellular domain of CD44 could be detected upon activation with the use of isoform-specific mAbs. Thus, lymphokine stimulation caused CD44 to become a cytotoxic trigger in subsets of PBL that mediated other forms of cytotoxicity and expressed CD44 before activation, suggesting that activation of these cells was accompanied by a coupling of CD44 to their lytic machinery.