T cells bearing gamma delta Ag receptors accumulate in the lesions of patients with localized American cutaneous leishmaniasis (LCL), and are thought to be involved in immunity to the parasite. To obtain clues as to the nature of the Ag recognized by these cells, we analyzed the diversity of the TCR delta-chain in LCL lesions. Using mAb against variable (V) encoded determinants with immunoperoxidase, both V delta 1 and V delta 2 subpopulations were identified in the dermal granulomas. However, within the epidermis of LCL lesions, the majority of the gamma delta T cells were V delta 1 positive. PCR analysis of lesion-derived DNA using oligonucleotide primers for V and junctional (J) gene segments revealed preferential usage of J delta 1 in lesions compared with the peripheral blood of these patients. Nucleotide sequence analysis of the V-J junction indicated limited diversity of gamma delta T cells within specific microanatomic regions. In addition, use of a single diversity (D) gene segment, D delta 3, in V delta 2 cells in lesions was observed, as opposed to multiple D delta gene segment usage in the blood of the same individuals. The distribution, gene segment usage and clonality of gamma delta T cells in lesions of leishmaniasis was remarkably similar to that observed in leprosy. Therefore, gamma delta T cells responding to infection may recognize a limited set of nominal Ag, perhaps common to distinct pathogens and/or those expressed by the host. Our findings are most consistent with a model in which specific gamma delta T cells are clonally selected by these Ag in lesions and undergo oligoclonal expansion within a microanatomic region.