A direct measurement of the avidity of the junction between a cytotoxic T lymphocyte and its target cell was achieved by using a biophysical approach. A micromanipulation technique was used to determine the force required to separate a cytotoxic T cell (human clone F1, with specificity for HLA-DRw6) from its specific target cell (JY: HLA-A2, -B7, -DR4, w6) prior to delivery of the lethal hit. The force required to separate the F1-JY pair is 1.5 X 10(4) dynes per square centimeter. This junction avidity for F1-JY pairs is 6 to 13 times greater than that for F1-F1 and JY-JY pairs; the F1-JY conjugate requires a stronger separating force and is more easily rejoined than the homologous cell pairs. This study provides an estimate of the avidity of cytotoxic T cells for their target cells and insights into the biophysical correlates of the molecular complexes formed in the interaction of cytotoxic T cells and their targets during the cytotoxic process.