Previous studies have suggested that MHC class I molecules bind and present peptides to CTL in a manner that is analogous to the presentation of peptides by class II molecules to Th. Crystallographic studies of HLA-A2 have led to the assignment of a putative peptide binding site that is bordered by two alpha helices consisting of residues 50-84 and 138-180. In this study, we have investigated whether residues in the alpha 2 helix are involved in the binding and/or presentation of a peptide to CTL. We have generated CTL to type A influenza virus by stimulation of human PBL with a synthetic peptide from the influenza A virus matrix protein (M1 residues 57-68) in the presence of rIL-2. Such HLA-A2.1-restricted influenza virus-immune CTL do not recognize infected HLA-A2.3+ targets. A2.1 and A2.3 differ by three amino acids in the alpha 2 domain: Ala vs. Thr at position 149, Val vs. Glu at position 152, and Leu vs. Trp at position 156. Site-directed mutants of the A2.1 gene that encode A2 molecules that resemble A2.3 at positions 149, 152, and 156 have been constructed, transfected into human cells, and assayed for their ability to present the M1 peptide. The results demonstrate that most, but not all, A2.1-restricted M1-peptide-specific CTL fail to recognize M1 peptide-exposed transfectants with certain single amino acid substitutions at positions 152 and 156. In contrast, M1 peptide-exposed transfectants that express A2 molecules with an Ala----Thr substitution at position 149 were recognized by all CTL tested, but they exhibited an apparent difference in the kinetics of peptide binding. These results indicate that amino acid substitutions at positions 152 and 156 of the putative peptide binding site of the A2 molecule can affect presentation without eliminating binding, and indicate that the failure to recognize complexes between the peptide and the mutant A2 molecules is due to different TCR specificities and not to the failure to bind the peptide.