High avidity cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) are important in viral clearance and anti-tumor immunity, however, mechanisms for their optimal generation and maintenance in vivo remain unclear. Immunizing mice with an antibody-DNA vaccine encoding a single CTL epitope, induces a 100 fold higher avidity response than peptide vaccination with the identical epitope. The high avidity response is retained into memory and can be efficiently reactivated with an antibody-DNA boost. In contrast, reactivation of high avidity CTL with peptide, stimulated responses with a significant drop in avidity, suggesting loss or conversion of the high avidity CTL to lower avidity. Similarly, high avidity T cells maintained ex vivo were exquisitely sensitive to signaling with low doses of peptide (1 ng/ml) giving optimal TCR stimulation and resulting in retained avidity, proliferation and ability to kill specific targets. In contrast, high avidity T cells maintained ex vivo with supraoptimal TCR stimulation (10 µg/ml peptide) resulted in reduced avidity and failure to kill tumor cells. They also failed to proliferate, showed a significant increase in apoptosis and expressed high levels of the exhaustion marker programmed death-1 (PD-1) and low levels of the lymphocyte-activation gene 3 (LAG-3). This suggests high avidity T cells are recruited to the memory pool but can be lost by supraoptimal stimulation in vitro and in vivo. This is characterized by loss of function and an increase in cell death. The remaining CTL, exhibit low functional avidity that is reflected in reduced anti-tumor activity. This could contribute to failure of the immune system to control the growth of tumors and has implications for vaccination strategies and adoptive transfer of T cells.