Cell-mediated lymphocyte cytotoxicity in ileum and colon of patients with ulcerative colitis (UC), Crohn's disease (CD) and controls was investigated. Frequencies of cells expressing perforin and Fas-ligand (FasL) were determined by immunomorphometry. mRNA expression of perforin, granzyme B and FasL in T cells and subsets was assayed by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction. Cytotoxicity of intraepithelial and lamina propria lymphocytes was analysed without ex vivo activation in three functional assays: (1) anti-CD3-dependent T-cell receptor (TCR)-/CD3-mediated redirected cytotoxicity, (2) Fas-/FasL-mediated TCR-/CD3-independent cytotoxicity and (3) natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxicity. Inflammation in ileum of CD patients caused increased frequency of perforin-expressing cells and enhanced perforin-dependent TCR-/CD3-mediated cytotoxicity. In contrast, lymphocytes in the inflamed colon of UC or Crohn's colitis patients did not display this cytotoxicity nor did lymphocytes of normal colon. Normal colon lymphocytes showed spontaneous Fas-/FasL-mediated cytotoxicity. This activity was retained but not enhanced in inflamed UC colon. In contrast, a significant increase of FasL-expressing cells was seen in situ. Inflammation did not induce NK cell activity in colonic lymphocytes. Intestinal lymphocytes comprise effectors active in two different cytolytic processes. ‘Classical’ cytotoxic T lymphocytes in small intestine and lymphocytes executing TCR-/CD3-independent FasL-/Fas-mediated killing of unknown biological role present throughout the intestinal mucosa. Ongoing normal cytolytic processes seem to be enhanced by chronic inflammation.