CD8+ T cell clones specific for a defined epitope present in the circumsporozoite protein of Plasmodium yoelii display striking differences in their in vivo antiplasmodial activity. The adoptive transfer of certain clones (YA23 and YA26) into naive mice inhibits by 90% or more the development of liver stages of malaria parasites and protects against malaria infection. The adoptive transfer of two other T cell clones (YB8 and YA15) results, respectively, in partial or no inhibitory activity on parasite development. We found that "protective" and "nonprotective" cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) clones do not differ in their fine epitope specificity and display similar levels of lysis and DNA degradation of target cells in vitro. Their pattern of production of lymphokines and granule-associated proteins also failed to correlate with their in vivo antiplasmodial activity. Histological studies combined with autoradiography showed that, upon adoptive transfer, only T cells from the protective CTL clones are capable of "associating" with a significant percentage of parasitized hepatocytes. Fluorescence-activated cell sorter analysis of surface molecules revealed pronounced differences in the levels of CD44 and VLA-4 expression by the different clones, correlating closely with their in vivo protective activity. The correlation between in vivo antiparasite activity and the expression of CD44 was further corroborated by the results of sorting, from the partially protective YB8 clone, two sub-populations expressing high and low levels of CD44. These were protective and nonprotective, respectively. The clones also differed in their adhesive properties. Cross-linking of CD44, using specific antibodies, induced LFA-1-mediated homotypic aggregation of protective clones, while nonprotective cells failed to aggregate.