The serum Ab response and the class I-restricted CTL response of C57BL/6 (H-2b) mice to hepatitis B (pre)core Ag (HBcAg, HBeAg) was studied. Injection of HBcAg particles without adjuvants into mice efficiently primed serum Ab responses but not CTL response. We constructed the expression plasmids pCMV-1/c and pCMV-1/e in which expression of HBcAg or HBeAg was driven by cytomegalovirus immediate early region promoter sequences. Stable murine RBL5/C transfectant lines expressing HBcAg were established. Intramuscular DNA immunization with plasmid pCMV-1/c (encoding intracellularly expressed core Ag) or pCMV-1/e (encoding secreted precore Ag) efficiently primed specific serum Ab responses and CTL responses. The CTL response elicited in this system was mediated by CD4-CD8+ effector cells primed in vivo. The CTL recognized the HBcAg93-100 8-mer peptide MGLKFRQL in the context of Kb. Hence, DNA immunization with HBcAg/HBeAg-expressing plasmids, but not immunization with exogenous HBcAg particles, elicits a class I-restricted CTL response of defined epitope/restriction specificity in H-2b mice.