Peripheral T lymphocytes from patients with infectious mononucleosis (IM) are sensitized in vivo against the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The expression of HLA-A, B, or C molecules at the target cell surface is necessary for the cytotoxic reaction because (a) EBV-positive Daudi cells lacking HLA-A, B, and C determinants are resistant to anti-EBV T-cell lysis, (b) cytolysis of EBV-positive target cells can be consistently inhibited by anti-HLA-A, B, and C and anti-beta 2 microglobulin antibodies. However, no evidence for allogeneic restriction in this system was apparent as (a) cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) from one given individual could exert a cytotoxicity of a similar magnitude on different EBV-positive target cells, regardless of the number of HLA-A or B specificities shared by the effectors and targets; (b) CTL from IM patients were able to kill target cells without any HLA-A or B antigen in common; and (c) T5-1 variants lacking one or two HLA antigens at the A, B, or D locus are killed to the same extent as the parental cells. 7 of the 9 IM patients with detectable circulating anti-EBV CTL carried the HLA-A1 antigen, whereas none of the 16 IM patients lacking detectable peripheral CTL were HLA-A1 positive (mean specific lysis of T5-1 target cells by T cells from HLA-A1 positive patients: 29.3 vs. 0.6% in HLA-A1-negative patients) (P less than 10(-9)). These data suggest an HLA-A1-linked gene control of the magnitude of the anti-EBV CTL response. Thus, the HLA region appears to act at two different level sin the T-cell-mediated lysis of EBV-infected cells by controlling first, the development of anti-EBV and second, the expression of HLA-A, B, and C molecules involved as recognition structures at the target cell surface.