Coculture of melanoma cells and T cell clones derived from tumor- infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) generally results in lysis of the antigen-bearing tumor cells but to inefficient proliferation and IL-2 secretion by responder T cells. This suboptimal activation is classically explained by an inability of tumor cells to provide costimulatory signals. Here we analyzed the responses to synthetic peptides of HLA-A2.1-restricted CTL clones specific for melanoma antigens MART-1 and NA17-A. We showed that peptide concentrations ranging from 1 pM to 10 nM efficiently sensitized the peptide transporter-deficient T2 cells to lysis. T2 cells pulsed with melanoma peptides also induced TIL proliferation and detectable secretion of IL- 2, IFN-gamma and GM-CSF, but only for peptide concentrations 10- to 10,000-fold higher than those required for lysis. Hence this suggests that partial triggering of TIL clones by melanoma cells could be due to expression of appropriate MHC-peptide complexes at subthreshold levels. In support of this, we showed that melanoma cells, unable to trigger IL- 2 secretion, developed this ability when incubated with the appropriate peptide. These results indicate that the level of antigens expressed on melanoma tumors critically affects TIL activation status and thus, the efficiency of specific immune reactions mediated by these cells.