Two groups of human and murine cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) clones specific for human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-A2 or -B7 can be distinguished based on their ability to kill murine transfectants expressing these molecules. The clones which do not recognize murine transfectants exhibited greatly reduced conjugate formation with these cells, indicating that the inability to lyse these cells occurs in recognition and binding. No systematic differences in inhibitory titer between the two types of CTL clones were seen with anti-CD8 (Lyt-2), anti-LFA-1, or monoclonal antibodies against HLA class I molecules. However, blocking with anti-HLA class I monoclonal antibodies suggested that different CTL clones recognized spatially separate epitopes on HLA-A2 and -B7. In addition, a correlation between the inability to recognize murine transfectants and fine specificity was seen. Eight of nine clones which did not lyse murine transfectants also failed to recognize human cells expressing HLA-A2.2 or -A2.3. In contrast only 5 of 12 clones which lysed transfectants failed to recognize the variant molecules. Analogous data were obtained with human CTL clones raised against HLA-A2.1. These findings suggest that CTL clones that do not lyse murine cells expressing appropriate antigens recognize epitopes that have been altered or lost as a consequence of expression on the murine cell surface. It is suggested that the loss of HLA-associated epitopes on the murine cell surface may be due to differences between mouse and human cells in the processing or presentation of class I-associated peptides.