It is generally accepted that both host protection and pathogenic reactions in tuberculosis are mediated by T lymphocytes. However, little is known about the structures and discreet functions of epitopes stimulating the immune response. In this study, proliferative responses of blood T lymphocytes to synthetic peptides derived from the sequence of the 38-kDa antigen from Mycobacterium tuberculosis have been investigated in 41 healthy individuals and in 36 patients with active tuberculosis. Of the healthy purified protein derivative (PPD)-positive donors, 90% responded to a permissively recognized peptide, 38.G (residues 350-359), located at the carboxy terminus of the molecule. Four other permissively recognized epitopes of this molecule (38.A, 38.I, 38.E, 38.K) were stimulatory for more than 50% of healthy PPD-positive individuals. Patients with lymphatic tuberculosis responded to these peptides in a similar manner. In contrast, we observed a selective anergy to stimulation with peptide 38.G in the majority of patients with pulmonary (11% responders) and nonlymphatic extrapulmonary tuberculosis (25% responders). The lack of responsiveness to 38.G was epitope specific since the degree of responsiveness to the other four permissively recognized peptide epitopes was similar for patients and PPD-positive controls. Using the PEPSCAN technology and truncated peptides, the core epitope of 38.G was localized to a peptide 10 amino acids long (HFQPLPPAVV). This minimal structure was capable of inducing a proliferative response in all healthy 38.G responders tested. The mechanisms influencing this epitope-specific anergy in patients could give new insights into the immunopathogenesis of tuberculosis.