Combining cell surface phenotyping with functional analysis, human CD8+ T cells have been divided into several subsets which are being studied extensively in diverse physiological situations, such as viral infection, cancer and ageing. In particular, so-called terminally differentiated effector cells possess a CD45RA+ CCR7- CD27- CD28- phenotype, contain perforin and, in different models, have been shown to exert direct ex vivo killing and to release interleukins upon both antigen-nonspecific and -specific stimulation. Using HLA class I multimers, we have identified a high frequency of peripheral CD8+ T cells that recognize a peptide derived from the self protein cytokeratin 18 presented by the HLA-A*0201 molecule. These cells can be detected in approximately 15% of the HLA-A2-positive healthy donors tested. A detailed analysis revealed that they must have divided extensively in vivo, have an effector cell phenotype and express various natural killer cell-associated receptors. Interestingly, however, they remained unresponsive to antigen-specific stimulation in vitro in terms of cytotoxicity and cytokine secretion. Thus, cytokeratin 18-specific cells constitute a frequently encountered, new CD8+ T lymphocyte subpopulation without classical effector status and with so far unknown function.