Bovine NK cells have recently been characterized and the present study describes the interaction between NK cells, antigen-presenting cells, and secreted mycobacteriall proteins. Gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) production by NK cells was seen in approximately 30% of noninfected calves in response to the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex-specific protein ESAT-6, MPP14 from Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis, and purified protein derivative (PPD) from M. tuberculosis. In contrast, no response was induced by MPB70, which is another M. tuberculosis complex-specific secreted antigen. The production of IFN-gamma by NK cells in whole blood in response to ESAT-6 and MPP14 was demonstrated using intracellular staining together with surface labeling for the NK cell-specific receptor, NKp46, or CD3. Furthermore, the depletion of NK cells from peripheral blood mommuclear cells completely abolished the IFN-gamma production. The response was mediated through stimulation of adherent cells and was largely independent of contact between adherent cells and the NK cells. Neutralization of interleukin-12 only partly inhibited IFN-gamma production, showing that other cytokines were also involved. The demonstration of NK cell-mediated IFN-gamma production in young cattle provides an explanation for the nonspecific IFN-gamma response frequently encountered in young cattle when using the IFN-gamma test in diagnosis of mycobacteriall infections.