NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity is regulated by both triggering and inhibitory signals. The interaction between MHC class I molecules expressed on target cells and specific MHC class I-binding receptors expressed by NK cells generally leads to inhibition of lysis. We have shown recently that CD80 (B7-1) in mice and CD40 in humans trigger NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity in vitro. In the present study, we show that murine CD40 and CD86 (B7-2) trigger murine NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity in vitro when expressed on tumor cells. Preincubation of the transfected cell lines with anti-CD40 F(ab')2 fragments or cytolytic T lymphocyte-associated Ag-4-Ig (CTLA-4-Ig) before the cytotoxic assay abolished the triggering effect. Furthermore, radiolabeled CD40- and B7-2-expressing cells were rapidly eliminated in vivo in an NK cell-dependent manner. NK cells from CD40 ligand (CD40L)-/- or CD28-/- mice were triggered by tumor cells transfected with CD40 and B7-2, respectively, and these transfectants were rapidly eliminated in vivo when inoculated into CD40L-/- and CD28-/- mice. This suggests that the CD40 and B7-2 molecules can interact with receptors on NK cells other than CD40L and CD28, respectively, and that these may account for some of the reactivities observed in the present study. Collectively, these data demonstrate that 1) costimulatory molecules, other than B7-1, can modulate NK cell responses in vitro, 2) they can also affect NK cell-dependent responses in vivo, and 3) parts of these reactions are independent of CD28 and CD40L.