Two unusual characteristics of the memory response to the immunodominant Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) epitope FLRGRAYGL, which associates with HLA B8, have provided an unique opportunity to investigate self tolerance and T cell receptor (TCR) plasticity in humans. First, the response is exceptionally restricted, dominated by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) with identical TCR protein sequences (Argaet, V. P., C. W. Schmidt, S. R. Burrows, S. L. Silins, M. G. Kurilla, D. L. Doolan, A. Suhrbier, D. J. Moss, E. Kieff, T. B. Sculley, and I. S. Misko. 1994. J. Exp. Med. 180:2335-2340). Second, CTL expressing this receptor are cross-reactive with the alloantigen HLA B* 4402 on uninfected cells (Burrows, S. R., R. Khanna, J. M. Burrows, and D. J. Moss. 1994. J. Exp. Med. 179:1155-1161). No CTL using this conserved public TCR could be reactivated from the peripheral blood of EBV exposed individuals expressing both HLA B8 and B*4402, demonstrating the clonal inactivation of potentially self-reactive T cells in humans. A significant FLRGRAYGL-specific response was still apparent, however, and TCR sequence analysis of multiple CTL clones revealed an oligoclonal TCR repertoire for this determinant within these individuals, using diverse V and J gene segments and CDR3 regions. In addition, a significant public TCR component was identified in which several distinct alpha/beta rearrangements are shared by CTL clones from a number of unrelated HLA B8+, B*4402+ donors. The striking dominance of public TCR in the response to this EBV epitope suggests a strong genetic bias in TCR gene recombination. Fine specificity analysis using peptide analogues showed that, of six different antigen receptors for FLRGRAYGL/HLA B8, none associate closely with the peptide's full array of potential TCR contact residues. Whereas the HLA B*4402-cross-reactive receptor binds amino acids toward the COOH terminus of the peptide, others preferentially favor an NH2-terminal determinant, presumably evading an area that mimics a structure presented on HLA B*4402. Thus, tolerance to a background major histocompatibility antigen can effectively diversify the TCR repertoire for a foreign epitope by deflecting the response away from an immunodominant combination of TCR-binding residues.