HLA-B27 subtype polymorphism is amenable to differential recognition by CTL. Site-directed mutagenesis was used to construct a series of HLA-B27 mutants reproducing most of the changes occurring in the natural subtypes. The reactivity of 21 anti-HLA-B27 CTL clones was examined with these mutants to address three issues concerning the alloreactive response against HLA-B27: 1) diversity of clonotypic specificities, 2) structural features of the epitopes recognized by these clones, and 3) role of individual positions in the differential recognition of HLA-B27 subtypes. Virtually all CTL clones displayed unique reaction patterns with the mutants, indicating a corresponding diversity of epitopes. However, these share some molecular features, such as certain amino acid residues and related locations. Individual mutations induced complex effects on multiple B27-specific CTL epitopes, revealing some of their very precise stereochemical constrains. An important feature of HLA-B27 subtype polymorphism is that every individual change was relevant, altering recognition by many CTL clones. Although the specific set affected by each mutation was partially different, the global number of clones affected by most changes was very similar. This suggests that the antigenic profile of any given subtype is not dominated by one particular change but is uniquely defined by its corresponding set of changes. An exception was the change at position 152, which totally abrogated recognition by all 20 anti-B*2705 CTL clones. This effect decisively influences the profound differences in T cell recognition between B*2705 and the two subtypes, B*2704 and B*2706, carrying this change. The results are compatible with the idea that HLA-B27 allorecognition may involve multiple peptides bound to the alloantigen on the cell surface.