Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) expressing the CD8 glycoprotein recognize peptide antigens presented by class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. This correlation and the absence of CD8 polymorphism led to the hypothesis that CD8 binds to a conserved site of class I MHC molecules. Using a cell-cell binding assay we previously demonstrated specific interaction between human class I MHC (HLA-A,B,C) molecules and CD8. Subsequent analysis of the products of 17 HLA-A,B alleles revealed a natural polymorphism for CD8 binding in the human population. Two molecules, HLA-Aw68.1 and HLA-Aw68.2, which do not bind CD8, have a valine residue at position 245 whereas all other HLA-A,B,C molecules have alanine. Site-directed mutagenesis shows that this single substitution in the alpha 3 domain is responsible for the CD8 binding phenotype and also affects recognition by alloreactive and influenza-specific CTL. Our results indicate that CD8 binds to the alpha 3 domain of class I MHC molecules.