Proteins secreted across the cell wall of mycobacteria are important antigens recognized early in the host response to mycobacterial infection. MPT64 is a 23-kD secreted protein restricted to members of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex which elicits T cell responses and cutaneous DTH reactions in Myco. tuberculosis-infected animals. Patients with tuberculosis and their tuberculin-positive contacts respond to the protein, but recipients of bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine strains lacking the mpt64 gene do not. In the present study, we describe the development of a unique recombinant mycobacterial vector which secretes the encoded Myco. tuberculosis protein MPT64 at high levels into the culture filtrate, from which the protein is isolated by a single-step affinity chromatographic step. The purified protein was recognized by both polyclonal and monoclonal anti-MPT64 antibodies. The T cell reactivity of the protein was confirmed by its ability to stimulate human anti-rMPB64 T cell lines. The Myco. smegmatis recombinant MPT64 protein was superior to the Escherichia coli rMPB64 protein, which has identical amino acid sequence, in eliciting cutaneous DTH reactions in guinea pigs sensitized with Myco. tuberculosis. Animals sensitized with BCG strains lacking the mpb64 gene failed to respond to MPT64. Similarly, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) responses in tuberculosis patients and their contacts were higher to the Myco. smegmatis form of the protein. The potential of this form of the Myco. tuberculosis MPT64 protein as a skin test reagent for tuberculosis is discussed.