Antigen-specific CD8(+) T cells with cytotoxic activity are often critical in immune responses to infectious pathogens. To determine whether gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) expression is a surrogate marker for cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL), human cytomegalovirus-specific CTL responses were correlated with CD8(+) T-cell IFN-gamma expression determined by cytokine flow cytometry. A strong positive correlation was observed between specific lysis of peptide-pulsed targets in a (51)Cr release assay and frequencies of peptide-activated CD8(+) T cells expressing IFN-gamma at 6 h (r(2) = 0.72) or 7 days (r(2) = 0.91). Enumeration of responding cells expressing perforin, another marker associated with CTL, did not improve this correlation. These results demonstrate that IFN-gamma expression can be a functional surrogate for identification of CTL precursor cells.