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NK cell activity is regulated by the integration of positive and negative signals. One important source of these signals for human NK cells is the killer Ig-like receptor (KIR) family, which includes both members that transduce positive and those that generate negative signals. KIR3DL1 inhibits NK cell activity upon engagement by its ligand HLA-Bw4. The highly homologous KIR3DS1 is an activating receptor, which is implicated in the outcome of a variety of pathological situations. However, unlike KIR3DL1, direct binding of KIR3DS1+ cells to HLA has not been demonstrated. We analyzed four key amino acid differences between KIR3DL1*01502 and KIR3DS1*013 to determine their role in KIR binding to HLA. Single substitutions of these residues dramatically reduced binding by KIR3DL1. In the reciprocal experiment, we found that the rare KIR3DS1 allotype KIR3DS1*014 binds HLA-Bw4 even though it differs from KIR3DS1*013 at only one of these positions (position 138). This reactivity was unexpectedly dependent on residues at other variable positions, as HLA-Bw4 binding was lost in receptors with KIR3DL1-like residues at both positions 199 and 138. These data provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, for the direct binding of KIR3DS1+ cells to HLA-Bw4 and highlight the key role for position 138 in determining ligand specificity of KIR3DS1. They also reveal that KIR3DS1 reactivity and specificity is dictated by complex interactions between the residues in this region, suggesting a unique functional evolution of KIR3DS1 within the activating KIR family.