In MHC class I-deficient hosts, natural killer (NK) cells are hyporesponsive to cross-linking of activation receptors. Functional competence requires engagement of a self-major histocompatability complex (MHC) class I-specific inhibitory receptor, a process referred to as "licensing." We previously suggested that licensing is developmentally determined in the bone marrow. In this study, we find that unlicensed mature MHC class I-deficient splenic NK cells show gain-of-function and acquire a licensed phenotype after adoptive transfer into wild-type (WT) hosts. Transferred NK cells produce WT levels of interferon-γ after engagement of multiple activation receptors, and degranulate at levels equivalent to WT NK cells upon coincubation with target cells. Only NK cells expressing an inhibitory Ly49 receptor specific for a cognate host MHC class I molecule show this gain-of-function. Therefore, these findings, which may be relevant to clinical bone marrow transplantation, suggest that neither exposure to MHC class I ligands during NK development in the BM nor endogenous MHC class I expression by NK cells themselves is absolutely required for licensing.