The stage of progenitor maturation and factors that determine the fate and clonal acquisition of human natural killer (NK) cell receptors during development are unknown. To study human NK cell receptor ontogeny, umbilical cord blood CD34+/Lin-/CD38- cells were cultured with a murine fetal liver line (AFT024) and defined cytokines. In the absence of lymphocyte-stimulating cytokines or when contact with AFT024 was prohibited, NK cell progeny were killer immunoglobulinlike receptor (KIR) and CD94 lectin receptor negative. In contrast, efficient NK cell differentiation and receptor acquisition was dependent on direct contact of progenitors with AFT024 and the addition of interleukin-15 (IL-15) or IL-2 but not IL-7. To address the question of whether receptor acquisition was determined at the stem cell level, single CD34+/Lin-/CD38- progenitors were studied. More than 400 single cell progeny were analyzed from cultures containing IL-15 or IL-2 and NK cells were always polyclonal, suggesting that receptor fate is determined beyond an uncommitted progenitor and that receptor-negative NK cells acquire class I-recognizing receptors after lineage commitment. KIR2DL2/L3/S2 was expressed more than KIR2DL1/S1 or KIR3DL1, and NKG2A was the dominant CD94 receptor, independent of whether the stem cell source contained the respective major histocompatibility complex class I ligand, suggesting a nonrandom sequence of receptor acquisition. The conclusion is that NK receptor fate is determined after NK cell commitment, does not require stromal presentation of human class I alleles, and is clonally stable after expression but dynamic because new receptors are acquired over time.