Natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxicity is mediated by multiple germ line-encoded activating receptors that recognize specific ligands expressed by tumor cells and virally infected cells. These activating receptors are opposed by NK inhibitory receptors, which recognize major histocompatibility complex class I molecules on potential targets, raising the threshold for NK cell activation. Once an abnormal cell has been detected, NK cells are the sentinel source of cytolytic mediators, such as granzymes and perforins, as well as interferon-γ, which can polarize the immune response to a T-helper 1 cell type. Activation signals are transmitted by adhesion-dependent pathways, immunoreceptor tyrosine-based activation motif (ITAM)-dependent pathways, DAP10 ITAM-independent pathways, and by signaling through immunoreceptor tyrosine-based switch motifs. These pathways activate downstream signaling partners to trigger NK cell cytotoxicity. Some of these downstream molecules are unique to the various pathways, and some of these molecules are shared. Because of the complexity of signals involved in NK cell-target cell interaction, the generation of mice with targeted mutations in signaling molecules involved in adhesion, activation, or inhibition is essential for a precise dissection of the mechanisms regulating NK cell effector functions. Here we review recent advances in the genetic analysis of the signaling pathways that mediate NK cell killing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-105
Number of pages14
JournalImmunological Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Activation
  • Adapters
  • NK cells
  • Signaling


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