To investigate the evolutionary pressures that drive the generation of polymorphism in primate MHC class I molecules, three cDNA that encode MHC class I alleles from a New World monkey, the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), were cloned and sequenced. These tamarin MHC class I alleles contained amino acid substitutions not found in any of the previously sequenced human MHC class I alleles. Moreover, the majority of these unique amino acid substitutions was located in the Ag recognition site at positions that have been shown to be critical in the presentation of viral peptides to T cells in mice and humans. These data suggest that selective pressures on MHC class I molecules preferentially act on the Ag recognition site and that the peptide binding or presenting functions of these molecules may drive the generation of MHC class I polymorphism. The novel Ag recognition sites of the tamarin MHC class I molecules, in addition to their restricted polymorphism, might account for the unusual susceptibility of the cotton-top tamarin to human pathogens.