The outermost layer of the human placenta is devoid of classical class I human leukocyte antigens (HLA-A, HLA-B, and HLA-C) and class II proteins (HLA-DR, HLA-DQ, and HLA-DP). Although this prevents recognition by maternal T lymphocytes, the lack of class I molecules leaves these cells susceptible to attack by natural killer (NK) cells. However, trophoblast cells directly in contact with the maternal tissues express the class I molecule HLA-G, which may be involved in protecting the trophoblast from recognition by NK cells. Here evidence is provided that expression of HLA-G is sufficient to protect otherwise susceptible target cells from lysis by activated NK1 and NK2 cell lines and clones that are specific for distinct groups of HLA-C alleles. The receptors on NK cells that recognize HLA-G are also identified.