Viral infections induce extensive T cell proliferation in vivo, but the specificity of the majority of the responding T cells has not been defined. To address this issue we used tetramers of MHC class I molecules containing viral peptides to directly visualize antigen-specific CD8 T cells during acute LCMV infection of mice. Based on tetramer binding and two sensitive assays measuring interferon-gamma production at the single-cell level, we found that 50%-70% of the activated CD8 T cells were LCMV specific [2 x 10(7) virus-specific cells/spleen]. Following viral clearance, antigen-specific CD8 T cell numbers dropped to 10(6) per spleen and were maintained at this level for the life of the mouse. Upon rechallenge with LCMV, there was rapid expansion of memory T cells, but after infection with the heterologous vaccinia virus there was no detectable change in the numbers of LCMV-specific memory CTL. Therefore, much of the CD8 T cell expansion seen during viral infection represents antigen-specific cells and warrants a revision of our current thinking on the size of the antiviral response.