How receptor acquisition correlates with the functional maturation of natural killer (NK) cells is poorly understood. We used quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays to compare NKG2 and killer immunoglobulin-like receptor (KIR) gene expression in NK cells from allogeneic transplant recipients and their donors. Marked differences were observed in the NK subsets of recipients who had 8-fold more CD56bright cells, diminished KIR expression (except 2DL4), and increased NKG2A. In normal blood not all CD56dim cells express KIR, and a novel subpopulation of cells committed to the NK-cell lineage was defined. These cells, which comprise 19.4% ± 2.8% of the CD56dim NK population in healthy donors, express the activating NKG2D and NKG2E receptors but no KIR or NKG2A. Although the CD56dim NKG2A- KIR- NK cells lack "at least one" inhibitory receptor for autologous MHC class I, they are not fully responsive, but rather functionally immature cells with poor cytotoxicity and IFN-γ production. Upon culture with IL-15 and a stromal cell line, CD56dim and CD56bright KIR- NK cells proliferate, express KIR, and develop cytotoxicity and cytokine-producing potential. These findings have implications for the function of NK cells reconstituting after transplantation and support a model for in vivo development in which CD56bright cells precede CD56dim cells.