Numerous virus-specific, class I-restricted cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) epitopes have been identified, yet little information is available regarding the specificity of the CTL response in persons of the same human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA) type. In this study, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) 1 envelope-specific CTL response was evaluated in five HLA-B14-positive persons. CTL responses specific for a previously described nine-amino acid epitope in gp41 (aa 584-592, ERYLKDQQL) could be identified in all subjects, and CTL clones specific for this epitope could be isolated from four persons. Despite heterogeneous T cell receptor usage, the fine specificity of the clones was similar, as defined by recognition of alanine-substituted peptides as well as peptides representing natural HIV-1 sequence variants. Correlation with in vivo virus sequences revealed that the dominant species in two of the subjects represented poorly recognized variants, with a K-->Q substitution at amino acid 588, whereas no variants were observed in the other two subjects. Although clonal type-specific responses to these dominant variants could be identified, the magnitude of these responses remained small, and the dominant CTL response was directed at the minor in vivo variant. These studies indicate that despite similar epitope-specific immunologic pressure in persons of the same HLA type, the in vivo quasispecies may differ, and that the major in vivo immune response to a given CTL epitope can be directed at a minor variant.

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