Activation-induced natural killer (NK) cell death is very rapid compared to activation-induced T or B cell death. Here we show that NK cell activation is accompanied by the leakage of granzymeB from intracellular granules into the cytoplasm. Evidence for granzyme B leakage includes the formation of granzyme B/serine proteinase inhibitor 9 (PI-9) complexes that are detected by immunoprecipitation as well as colocalization of granzyme B and PI-9 detected by immunocytochemistry. The pro-apoptotic molecule Bid, a specific substrate for granzyme B, was cleaved within 2 min following CD2-induced NK cell activation, suggesting that granzyme B triggers apoptosis by directing Bid to mitochondrial membranes. The granzyme B/PI-9 protein ratio was found to mirror the percentage of CD2-induced NK cell death, suggesting that an excess of leaked granzyme B over its inhibitor is a major determinant of cell death. We suggest that granzyme B leakage-induced cell death is an important determinant of activation-induced NK cell death and that this process may be important for the fate of NK cells which encounter malignant or virus-infected cells.