We define a nine-amino acid (aa) sequence of VAL-GLU-ASN-PRO-GLY-GLY-TYR-CYS-LEU as a major epitope for immunologic recognition of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) by H-2b-restricted CTL. The epitope was characterized using molecular genetics to bracket broadly and chemistry to precisely identify aa residues 278-286 of the viral glycoprotein. The epitope's composition is characteristic of a reverse (beta turn) but not an amphipathic alpha helix. A series of peptides with a single aa substitution in position 278 of VAL with other nonpolar (hydrophobic) amino acids (LEU, ILE, ALA, or GLY) coat targets that are recognized and lysed by CTL clones recognizing this epitope. In contrast, substitution of VAL with either large aromatic amino acids (that add bulk: PHE, TYR) or polar side chains (SER, THR) segregates CTL clones normally recognizing aa 278-286 into two groups, one that remains lytic (permissive) despite these changes and another that fails to lyse, indicating CTL can discriminate at a single aa. A change in charge at this position (VAL----ASP or GLU), in general, reduces CTL lysis while a change of VAL to LYS or ASN has minimal affect for four of the five CTL clones analyzed. CTL reactivity with the viral epitope is restricted by the Db but not the Kb of the murine MHC haplotype. A 16-aa peptide of Db that spans alpha 1 residues 37-52 blocks CTL lysis, whereas the corresponding Kb peptide that differs from Db in a single aa in position 50 does not.