A SIGNIFICANT proportion (up to 70%) of individuals experience an acute clinical syndrome of varying severity associated with primary infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). We report here studies on six individuals who showed an acute HIV syndrome which generally resolved within four weeks, concomitant with a dramatic downregulation of viraemia. To characterize the T-cell-mediated primary immune response to HIV, we used combined semiquantitative polymerase chain reaction assay and cytofluorometry to analyse the T-cell antigen receptor repertoire in sequential peripheral blood mononuclear cells from the patients. We found major oligoclonal expansions in a restricted set of variable-domain beta-chain (V beta) families. Cells expressing the expanded V beta s predominantly expressed the CD8 T-cell differentiation antigen and mediated HIV-specific cytotoxicity. Major oligoclonal expansions of these CD8+ T lymphocytes may represent an important component of the primary immune response to viral infections and may help to clarify both the immunopathogenic and the protective mechanisms of HIV infection.