T lymphocytes were recovered from recurrent vesicular and ulcerative herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) lesions from 4 patients and cloned without exogenous secondary antigenic stimulation. Resultant cultures were screened for antigen-specific proliferative and cytotoxic responses. Of the 39 HSV-specific clones recovered, all were CD3-positive; 38 were CD4-positive and 1 was CD8-positive. Of the T cell clones recovered directly from lesions, 6%-10% had HSV-specific proliferative responses, in contrast to a peripheral blood precursor frequency of HSV-specific CD4 cells of approximately 1/10(3) to 1/10(4) as measured by limiting dilution assays. CD4+ clones studied restricted by HLA-DR, -DP, and -DQ were detected and both type-common and type-specific CD4+ T cell clones were recovered. HSV-specific T cells localize to recurrent human genital HSV-2 lesions and can be obtained directly from early lesions. The ability to isolate HSV-specific T cell clones from lesions allows the study of antigenic specificities and functional properties of tissue-resident antigen-specific T lymphocytes.