Immunization of C57BL/6 (B6) mice with FBL, a Friend murine leukemia virus (F-MuLV), induces both tumor-specific cytolytic CD8+ (CTL) and lymphokine-producing CD4+ Th that are effective in adoptive therapy of B6 mice bearing disseminated FBL leukemia. The current study evaluated the F-MuLV antigenic determinants expressed on FBL that are recognized by FBL-reactive CD8+ and CD4+ T cells. To identify the specificity of the FBL-reactive CD8+ CTL, Fisher rat embryo fibroblast (FRE) cells transfected with plasmids encoding F-MuLV gag or envelope (env) gene products plus the class I-restricting element Db were utilized. FBL-reactive CTL recognized FRE target cells transfected with the F-MuLV gag-encoded gene products, but failed to recognize targets expressing F-MuLV env. Attempts to generate env-specific CD8+ CTL by immunization with a recombinant vaccinia virus containing an inserted F-MuLV env gene were unsuccessful, despite the generation of a cytolytic response to vaccinia epitopes, implying that B6 mice fail to generate CD8+ CTL to env determinants. By contrast, CD4+ Th clones recognized FRE target cells transfected with env and not gag genes, and immunization with the recombinant vaccinia virus induced an env-specific CD4+ T cell response. These data show that in a Friend retrovirus-induced tumor model in which tumor rejection can be mediated by either CTL or Th, antigens derived from discrete retroviral proteins are predominantly responsible for activation of each T cell subset.