The a determinant of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) is the most critical determinant for both diagnosis and immunoprophylaxis of the hepatitis B virus. We have used synthetic peptides and an anti-a mAb to identify a peptide sequence corresponding to amino acid residues 117 to 128 of HBsAg as an antigenic epitope contributing to the a determinant. Compared to the native protein HBsAg, the cyclic form of the peptide (aa 117-128) is only 20-fold less effective, whereas the linear form of the peptide is 160-fold less effective in the inhibition of mAb binding to HBsAg. Based on these results, we have postulated a previously unidentified disulfide bond between residue Cysl21 and Cysl24. Individual substitution of amino acids in the peptide (aa 117-128) with alanine identified three residues Cys121, Thr123, and Cys124 as the most critical residues for mAb recognition. Substitution of alanine for any one of the three residues caused a substantial loss in binding free energy (greater than 4.5 kcal/mol). Sequence analysis indicated that the C(K/R)TC motif is highly conserved among 100 subtypes and mutants of HBsAg isolates. Collectively, these results show that the cyclic C(K/R)TC motif is an essential part of the a determinant of HBsAg. Synthetic peptides containing the C(K/R)TC motif are potentially useful as alternative hepatitis B vaccines and as diagnostic reagents for the detection of the hepatitis B virus.