Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules present peptides that are derived from endogenous proteins. These antigens can also be transferred to professional antigen-presenting cells in a process called cross-presentation, which precedes initiation of a proper T-cell response; but exactly how they do this is unclear. We tested whether peptides can be transferred directly from the cytoplasm of one cell into the cytoplasm of its neighbour through gap junctions. Here we show that peptides with a relative molecular mass of up to approximately 1,800 diffuse intercellularly through gap junctions unless a three-dimensional structure is imposed. This intercellular peptide transfer causes cytotoxic T-cell recognition of adjacent, innocent bystander cells as well as activated monocytes. Gap-junction-mediated peptide transfer is restricted to a few coupling cells owing to the high cytosolic peptidase activity. We present a mechanism of antigen acquisition for cross-presentation that couples the antigen presentation system of two adjacent cells and is lost in most tumours: gap-junction-mediated intercellular peptide coupling for presentation by bystander MHC class I molecules and transfer to professional antigen presenting cells for cross-priming.