While it is well established that murine cytolytic T lymphocytes (CTL) express the Lyt-2/3 molecular complex on their surface, conflicting results have been reported concerning the role of this complex in CTL activity. In the present study this question was reinvestigated at the clonal level. Although different (H-2b anti-H-2d) CTL clones expressed comparable amounts of Lyt-2/3 molecules, as assessed by quantitative flow microfluorometry, the activity of some clones was inhibited by low doses (10 ng) of monoclonal anti-Lyt-2 or anti-Lyt-3 antibodies (in the absence of complement), whereas other clones were not inhibited by either antibody at doses as high as 5 microgram. Treatment of these clones with doses of trypsin sufficient to cleave Lyt-2/3 antigenic determinants from the cell surface resulted in a similar dissociation: clones that were inhibited by antibodies lost cytolytic activity, whereas "uninhibited" clones were unaffected by trypsin treatment. Moreover, the dissociation observed among different alloreactive clones could be demonstrated with self-H-2-restricted (H-2b anti-MSV) clones exhibiting cross-reactivity with normal H-2d products. The lytic activity of these clones against the relevant syngeneic target cells was unaffected by anti-Lyt-2 antibodies or trypsin, whereas their cross-reactivity on H-2d target cells was abolished by either treatment. These results provide direct evidence for clonal heterogeneity in the requirement for Lyt-2/3 molecules in CTL-mediated lysis. It is proposed that the function of Lyt-2/3 molecules is to stabilize the interaction between CTL receptors and the corresponding antigens on the target cells and that the requirement for such a stabilization is correlated with low number and/or affinity of CTL receptors.