CTL are held to be an important host defense mechanism in persistent herpes-virus infections. We have therefore studied the nature and specificity of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV)-specific CTL in normal persistently infected individuals. This was achieved by using vaccinia recombinants encoding viral genes expressed at different stages of the virus replicative cycle, a structural glycoprotein gB (vac.gB) and the major 72-kD immediate early nonstructural protein (vac.IE) of HCMV, combined with limiting dilution analysis of the CTL response. In two subjects, 43 and 58% of HCMV CTL precursors (CTLp) lysed vac.IE-infected cells, in contrast to less than 6% lysing gB-infected cells. HCMV-specific CTL could also be generated by secondary in vitro stimulation with vac.gB- but not vac.IE-infected autologous fibroblasts. The high frequency of 72-kD IE protein-specific CTL suggests that this is at least a major recognition element for the HCMV-specific CTL response in asymptomatic persistently infected individuals, and CTL with this specificity may be important in maintaining the normal virus/host equilibrium.