Primary cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and reactivation of persistent CMV are associated with significant morbidity and mortality in immunocompromised individuals. Although recovery from CMV disease is correlated with the development of CMV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL), the major viral target antigens to which the response is directed are ill-defined, though they may comprise viral structural elements. We now identify the CMV matrix protein pp65 as a significant target antigen for CD8+ class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-restricted CMV-specific CTL derived from the peripheral blood of four of five latently infected individuals. CMV-specific CTL recognition of pp65 on target cells occurs prior to the onset of viral gene expression and persists throughout the duration of the replicative cycle. Recognition in the absence of viral gene expression suggests that abundant viral protein enters the normal trafficking pathway upon viral penetration and is readily made available to MHC molecules for presentation at the cell surface. Thus pp65 specific CTL may represent an important effector population for early control and limitation of CMV infection and disease. The observation that CMV-specific CTL can be induced in vitro using peptide fragments derived from pp65 supports the future use and manipulation of this and similar effector populations in a clinical setting.