Cytotoxic T cell (CTL) activation by antigen requires the specific detection of peptide-major histocompatibility class I (pMHC) molecules on the target-cell surface by the T cell receptor (TCR). We examined the effect of mutations in the antigen-binding site of a Kb-restricted TCR on T cell activation, antigen binding and dissociation from antigen.These parameters were also examined for variants derived from a Kd-restricted peptide that was recognized by a CTL clone. Using these two independent systems, we show that T cell activation can be impaired by mutations that either decrease or increase the binding half-life of the TCR-pMHC interaction. Our data indicate that efficient T cell activation occurs within an optimal dwell-time range of TCR-pMHC interaction. This restricted dwell-time range is consistent with the exclusion of either extremely low or high affinity T cells from the expanded population during immune responses.