The outcome of infection by lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) is determined largely by the cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) response of the host. In H-2b mice, the anti-glycoprotein (GP) response is directed to at least two epitopes, one located at GP aa 272-286 and a second in GP-1. Here we show that the second epitope can be minimally identified by amino acid residues GP 34-40 (AVYNFAT). The epitope is restricted by the Db class I glycoprotein. Characterization of these CTL epitopes allowed us to address the role(s) played by each epitope when expressed singly in the control of a lethal challenge with LCMV. Here we show that a single immunization with a recombinant vaccinia virus (VV) vaccine expressing LCMV GP aa 1-59 confers protection to H-2b mice from lethal LCMV infection. In contrast, a VV expressing LCMV GP aa 272-293, although recognized by CTL, does not protect. We show that the success or failure of protective immunization is determined by the ability of the immunizing sequences to prime for CTL in vivo. Although the GP 278-286 epitope when contained as a "minigene" fails to induce CTL, when incorporated in the normal GP "backbone" it successfully elicits CTL. These observations suggest that the "minimal" recognition sequence alone may not be sufficient to induce a protective CTL response in vivo. Thus a single CTL epitope can protect against a lethal virus infection, but to achieve an effective vaccine, the immunizing sequences must be carefully selected.