Highly purified preparations of intraepithelial leukocytes (IEL) were obtained from the small intestinal mucosa. Leukocytes from the lamina propria (LPL) were isolated and phenotypically compared with IEL to verify that IEL were minimally contaminated by LPL. Because approximately 80% of IEL expressed the Lyt-2 antigen usually associated with cytotoxic/suppressor T lymphocytes, we wished to determine if precursors for cytotoxic T cells were present in this population. In order to generate cytotoxic cells, IEL and spleen cells from CBA/J mice (H-2k) were co-cultured with irradiated allogeneic spleen cells (H-2d or H-2b) in a one-way mixed leukocyte reaction (MLR). Four to six days later, the cultured cells were assayed against 51Cr-labeled H-2d or H-2b tumor or Con A-stimulated lymphoblast target cells, and the specificity of alloantigen-stimulated IEL and spleen cells was compared. The cytotoxic cells derived from both tissues displayed antigen-specific lysis of the allogeneic targets. Treatment of effector cells, generated from intraepithelial or splenic precursors, with monoclonal antibodies against Thy-1.2, Lyt-1.1, or Lyt-2.1 antigens plus complement, decreased cytotoxicity 85 to 100%, even though only 20 to 50% of the cells were lysed. The alloantigen specificity and surface antigen phenotype of the cultured IEL cells were identical to those of spleen cells and allowed us to conclude that IEL contained a cytotoxic T lymphocyte precursor (CTLp). Further characterization showed that, like spleen, the intraepithelial CTLp was Thy-1+ and Lyt-1+ and their sedimentation velocity was the same but differed from intraepithelial natural killer cells. Although 80% of IEL were Lyt-2+, the frequency of CTLp in the IEL population was estimated to be threefold to fivefold lower than in spleen, and the Lyt-2+ cells were shown not to be an enriched source of CTLp. Thus, the function of the majority of the IEL is still not known. However, there exists within this population CTLp, which may be capable of being stimulated with luminal antigens.