We have screened peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from tuberculosis (TB) patients for proliferative reactivity and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) secretion against a panel of purified recombinant (r) and natural (n) culture filtrate (rESAT-6, nMPT59, nMPT64 and nMPB70) and somatic-derived (rGroES, rPstS, rGroEL and rDnaK) antigens of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The responses of PBMC to these defined antigens were compared with the corresponding results obtained with complex antigens, such as whole-cell M. tuberculosis, M. tuberculosis culture filtrate (MT-CF) and cell wall antigens, as well as the vaccine strain, Mycobacterium bovis bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG). In addition, M. tuberculosis and MT-CF-induced T-cell lines were tested in the same assays against the panel of purified and complex antigens. The compiled data from PBMC and T-cell lines tested for antigen-induced proliferation and IFN-gamma secretion showed that the most frequently recognized antigen was ESAT-6, followed by MPT59, GroES, MPB70, MPT64, DnaK, GroEL and PstS. The frequency of ESAT-6 responders, as measured both by proliferation (18/19) and secretion of IFN-gamma (16/19) was comparable to the results obtained with whole-cell M. tuberculosis, MT-CF and M. bovis BCG. We also observed that most of the high responders to complex antigens recognized all of the antigens tested (covariation), demonstrating that the repertoire of human T-cell specificities induced by natural infection is directed towards several unrelated culture filtrate as well as somatic-derived protein antigens. In conclusion, the results obtained suggest that the cellular immune response in humans is directed against several important target antigens of M. tuberculosis and that some antigens, such as ESAT-6, are recognized by a high number of individuals. Such antigens represent candidates to be used for development of specific diagnostic reagents or in subunit vaccines.