Because class I MHC Ags have been implicated as modulators of target cell sensitivity to NK cell-mediated lysis, the regulation of virus infections and the fate of NK cells and their natural targets was examined in beta 2-microglobulin-deficient mice, which have defective class I MHC expression. Infections with either the NK cell-sensitive murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV) or the NK cell-resistant lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) significantly augmented NK cell activity in either C57BL/6 (+/+) or beta 2-microglobulin knockout (-/-) mice. Depletion of NK cells in vivo with antiserum to asialo-GM1 markedly enhanced the synthesis of MCMV but had no effect on the synthesis of LCMV in either strain of mouse. Analysis of naturally NK cell-sensitive thymocyte targets from these virus-infected -/- mice revealed no cell surface expression of class I MHC detectable by conformation-dependent or -independent Abs, but the virus infections enhanced class I expression on thymocytes from +/+ mice. The sensitivity of +/+ thymocytes to NK cell-mediated lysis was markedly reduced after in vivo poly inosinic:cytidylic and treatment or viral infection; in contrast, the sensitivity of the -/- thymocytes was significantly less affected by poly inosinic:cytidylic acid treatment or viral infection. These data indicate that the normal expression of class I MHC Ags on NK cells or their targets is not required for the antiviral functions of NK cells against a NK-sensitive virus (MCMV) nor do they protect a NK-resistant virus (LCMV) from the antiviral activity of NK cells.