The morphologic and biological properties of porcine cells mediating natural killer (NK) activity were determined. In a previous study, we demonstrated that lymphocytes from the peripheral blood of pigs greater than 1 week of age possessed NK activity to K562 tumor cells and that lymphocytes from the blood and spleen of pigs greater than 1 day of age were able to mediate natural cytotoxicity against parainfluenza-3 (PI3) virus-infected Vero cells (Yang and Schultz, 1986a). Discontinuous density gradients were used to enrich NK cells. NK cytotoxicity was mainly present in high-density Percoll fractions (50 to 55% and 55 to 60%); little or no NK activity was present in lower density fractions. The NK cell enriched lymphocytes responded to the mitogens PHA, ConA and PWM. NK cells were sensitive to the suppressive effect of corticosteroid, but Protein A did not affect NK activity. The amount of cytotoxicity directly corresponded to the degree of binding that occurred between the NK enriched lymphocyte population and the target cells. Cytochemical and morphological studies demonstrated that these bond cells which are believed to be responsible for the NK activities, were mainly small to medium lymphocytes lacking azurophilic cytoplasmic granules. These findings were confirmed by ultrastructural studies of effector and "target-binding" cells. The results of the present study suggested that the cells mediating NK activity in pigs have the morphological and density characteristics of small and medium sized lymphocytes; findings that differ from those described for NK cells in human and other animal species.