In several species, the trophoblast is resistant to lysis by cytotoxic lymphocytes. Such resistance is believed to contribute to survival of the semiallogenic conceptus. We tested whether ovine chorionic cells are susceptible to lysis by specific and nonspecific cytotoxic lymphocytes in peripheral blood (PBL) and whether cytotoxic cells that can lyse target cells for natural-killer cells are present in the endometrium. Primary chorionic cells from pregnant ewes at Days 51-91 of gestation were labeled with Cr-51 and incubated for 20 h at 50:1 and 100:1 ratios with PBL from the pregnant mother or from a third-party ewe. In the absence of interleukin-2 (IL-2), there was no killing of primary chorionic cells by third-party PBL even after infection of chorionic cells with bovine herpes virus-1. Incubation with IL-2-induced cytotoxic action in third-party PBL towards one of six primary chorionic cell preparations only. Primary chorionic cells from two of four placentae were lysed by maternal PBL. Luminal epithelial cells from cyclic ewes and from the pregnant and nonpregnant uterine horns of unilaterally-pregnant ewes were evaluated for the presence of cells capable of killing D17 target cells (a natural-killer cell target). Killing was observed but there was no difference in activity between physiological stages. In contrast, there was intense immunochemical localization of perforin in glandular and luminal endometrial epithelial cells in pregnant ewes, and less intense staining in nonpregnant animals. It is concluded that ovine chorionic cells are generally resistant to killing by natural-killer-like cells and lymphokine-activated killer cells. Generation of maternal cytotoxic lymphocytes against trophoblast can occur in some cases and may contribute to pregnancy loss. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.