The human T cell leukemia (HTLV-1) retrovirus is the etiologic agent for adult T cell leukemia. Interleukin 2 (IL-2) activated killer (AK) cells have been shown to lyse freshly explanted tumor cells in vitro and have been used as a form of adoptive immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer. In this report, the ability of AK cells to lyse HTLV-1-infected targets was examined. Normal lymphocytes, when cultured in recombinant IL-2 for periods of 3 to 7 days, killed infected T and B cell lines. The precursor for these AK cells resided in the CD-16 antigen-positive subset (i.e., natural killer (NK) cells). Resting T cells, NK cells, or unfractionated lymphocytes did not lyse the infected targets. However, when isolated NK cells were incubated for 24 hr in IL-2, suboptimal cytolysis was induced whereas activation of NK cells with a four pulse of IL-2 was insufficient to generate effector cells. The results of performing cold target inhibition studies with Epstein-Barr virus-infected B cell lines and HTLV-1-infected T and B cell lines suggest that there are discrete subsets (i.e., clonotypic) in the AK population that preferentially lyse a given virally infected cell line. Thus to consider AK cells as true polyspecific killer cells may be inaccurate. Alternately AK cells may express a number of different receptors with variable affinities for the Epstein-Barr virus- and HTLV-1-infected cell lines. In addition, it was shown that HTLV-1-infected B cells are relatively resistant to AK cell-mediated lysis. These results clearly indicate that AK cells but not resting NK cells kill HTLV-1-infected cells.