We have taken advantage of some unique properties of H-2Ld to investigate the determinant density requirements for cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) priming versus effector function and to correlate the determinant density requirements with CD8 dependency. In a previous study (Lie, W.-R., N. B. Myers, J. Gorka, R. J. Rubocki, J. M. Connolly, and T. H. Hansen. 1990. Nature [Lond.]. 344:439), we demonstrated that culturing normal cells with peptides known to be restricted by H-2Ld led to a two- to fourfold increase in surface Ld expression. In the present study, we demonstrate the generation of Ld-restricted, peptide-specific in vitro primary CTL by culturing spleen cells with murine cytomegalovirus or tum- peptide at concentrations previously shown to result in maximum induction of Ld expression. Target cells can be sensitized for recognition by these CTL with lower dose of peptide than are required for the primary sensitization. This demonstrates differences in the determinant density requirements for priming versus effector function. The in vitro primary CTL generated with peptide can weakly lyse target cells that express the determinant endogenously, and CTL lines and clones capable of strong lysis of endogenous expressors are easily obtained. In both cases, target cells treated with exogenous peptide are lysed better than target cells expressing antigen endogenously. This suggested that there are differences in the determinant density of peptide-fed versus endogenous targets. This interpretation was substantiated when it was observed that the level of lysis of target cells expressing endogenous determinants correlated inversely with the amount of peptide required to sensitize targets for recognition by various tum- -specific CTL clones. Furthermore, simultaneous titration of both the peptide used to treat target cells and the antibody to CD8 revealed that the various CTL clones analyzed displayed widely disparate CD8 dependencies. In each case, the CD8 dependency correlated inversely with the determinant density requirement. Therefore, CD8 dependency of CTL is relative, but shows an absolute and quantitative correlation with their dependency on determinant density. These findings suggest that under physiologic conditions, where only low determinant densities are likely to be encountered, all CTL clones will show at least partial CD8 dependency.