A HLA-A3.1-restricted CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell clone, E7.20, that lyses cells infected with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 was isolated from an infected individual. The epitope was localized to amino acids 768-778 (RLRDLLLIVTR, NL43 env sequence) of the cytoplasmic domain of gp41 by successive use of a panel of recombinant vaccinia viruses that express truncated env genes and synthetic peptides. The epitope is conserved on 7 (NL43, BRU, HXB2, BRVA, SC, JH3, and JFL) of 13 human immunodeficiency virus type 1 isolates from North America. Synthetic peptides of this region of strains RF and CDC4 are also recognized by E7.20 despite a nonconservative Thr----Val or Thr----Ala change at amino acid 777; however, an MN peptide, which has four amino acid substitutions, was not reactive. The epitope recognized by E7.20 has a predicted hydrophobic alpha-helical structure, with three contiguous Leu residues followed by Ile and Val at amino acids 772-776. Cytotoxicity was restricted by HLA-A3.1 using allogeneic target cells that shared HLA class I antigens with the donor and an HLA-A and -B negative human plasma cell line transfected with the HLA-A3.1 gene. The transfected cells were infectable by human immunodeficiency virus type 1 strains IIIB and MN but only the former virus sensitized them to killing by E7.20. The ability of E7.20 to specifically lyse a human lymphocyte line infected with a human immunodeficiency virus type 1 strain carrying the conserved epitope is consistent with an important role for cytotoxic T cells in controlling infection.