Natural killer (NK) cells have potent capacities to immediately kill cellular targets and produce cytokines that may potentially damage normal self-tissues unless they are kept in check. Such tolerance mechanisms are incompletely understood. Here we discuss recent studies suggesting that NK cells undergo a host major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I-dependent functional maturation process, termed 'licensing'. Ironically, licensing directly involves inhibitory receptors that recognize target cell MHC class I molecules and block activation of NK cells in effector responses. This process results in two types of tolerant NK cells: functionally competent (licensed) NK cells, whose effector responses are inhibited by self-MHC class I molecules through the same receptors that conferred licensing, and functionally incompetent (unlicensed) NK cells.
- Major histocompatibility complex
- Natural killer cells