Natural killer (NK) cells develop in the bone marrow, but their in vivo stages of maturation, expansion and acquisition of receptors that guide target cell specificity are not well defined. We describe here such stages of development. We also show that developing NK cells actively proliferate at a phenotypically distinguishable immature stage after they have acquired expression of Ly49 and CD94-NKG2 receptors. These studies provide a developmental framework for NK cell maturation in vivo and suggest the possible involvement of the Ly49 and CD94-NKG2 receptors themselves in modulating expansion of NK cell populations with a given NK cell receptor repertoire.
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