The Ly49 natural killer (NK)-cell receptor family comprises both activating and inhibitory members, which recognize major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I or MHC class I - related molecules and are involved in target recognition. As previously shown, the Ly49E receptor fails to bind to a variety of soluble or cell-bound MHC class I molecules, indicating that its ligand is not an MHC class I molecule. Using BWZ.36 reporter cells, we demonstrate triggering of Ly49E by the completely distinct, non-MHC-related protein urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA). uPA is known to be secreted by a variety of cells, including epithelial and hematopoietic cells, and levels are up-regulated during tissue remodeling, infections, and tumorigenesis. Here we show that addition of uPA to Ly49E-positive adult and fetal NK cells inhibits interferon-γ secretion and reduces their cytotoxic potential, respectively. These uPA-mediated effects are Ly49E-dependent, as they are reversed by addition of anti-Ly49E monoclonal antibody and by down-regulation of Ly49E expression using RNA interference. Our results suggest that uPA, besides its established role in fibrinolysis, tissue remodeling, and tumor metastasis, could be involved in NK cell-mediated immune surveillance and tumor escape.