We have analyzed the specificity and function of natural killer (NK) cells in mice with a homozygous deletion of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-encoded transporter gene associated with MHC class I-restricted antigen presentation (Tap-1). These mice express very low levels of class I molecules at the cell surface, and these molecules are either devoid of peptide or occupied only by TAP-independent peptides. NK cells in Tap-1 -/- mice, through normal in number, appeared tolerant toward autologous Tap-1 -/- Con A-activated blasts, Tap-1 -/- as well as allogeneic BALB/c bone marrow cells, and RMA-S tumor cell grafts. In contrast, they killed YAC-1 cells as efficiently as did NK cells from wild-type mice. Defective Tap-1 expression was sufficient to render nontransformed target cells sensitive to NK cell-mediated lysis. It is concluded that proper expression of TAP molecules is necessary for normal development of NK cells, as well as for rendering target cells resistant to NK cell-mediated lysis. These results support the hypothesis that class I molecules of the MHC influence the sensitivity of target cells to lysis by NK cells, as well as the development of the NK cell repertoire.