The antigen processing-defective mutant cell line RMA-S expresses at the cell surface major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules devoid of peptide that can be efficiently loaded with exogenous immunogenic peptides. We now report that viral peptide-loaded RMA-S cells, unlike parental RMA cells, can induce primary cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) responses in vitro, in a T helper cell-independent fashion. This was shown for an H-2Kb-binding peptide of Sendai virus nucleoprotein and an H-2Db-binding peptide of adenovirus type 5 E1A protein with responding spleen cells of C57BL/6 mice, the strain of origin of RMA and RMA-S cells. Primary Sendai peptide-induced CTL lyse both peptide-loaded and virus-infected cells. Pre-culture of RMA-S cells at low temperature (22 degrees - 26 degrees C), which increases the amount of empty MHC class I molecules at the cell surface, decreases the peptide concentrations required for the induction of primary CTL responses. Primary peptide-specific CTL responses induced by peptide-loaded RMA-S cells are CD4+ cell- and MHC class II+ cell-independent. CTL response induction is blocked by the presence of anti-CD8 monoclonal antibody during culture. Direct peptide binding studies confirm the efficient loading of empty MHC molecules on RMA-S cells with peptide and show 2.5-fold more peptide bound per RMA-S cell compared to RMA cells. An additional factor explaining the difference in primary response induction between RMA and RMA-S cells is related to the CD8 dependence of these responses. MHC class I molecules occupied with irrelevant peptides (a majority present on RMA, largely absent on RMA-S) may interfere in the interaction of the CD8 molecule with relevant MHC/peptide complexes. The results delineate a novel strategy of peptide based in vitro immunization to elicit CD8+ cytotoxic T cell responses.