Virus-specific CD8+ T cells are known to play an important role in the control of HIV infection. In this study we investigated whether there may be qualitative differences in the CD8+ T cell response in HIV-1- and HIV-2-infected individuals that contribute to the relatively efficient control of the latter infection. A molecular comparison of global TCR heterogeneity showed a more oligoclonal pattern of CD8 cells in HIV-1- than HIV-2-infected patients. This was reflected in restricted and conserved TCR usage by CD8+ T cells recognizing individual HLA-A2- and HLA-B57-restricted viral epitopes in HIV-1, with limited plasticity in their response to amino acid substitutions within these epitopes. The more diverse TCR usage observed for HIV-2-specific CD8 T cells was associated with an enhanced potential for CD8+ expansion and IFN- production on cross-recognition of variant epitopes. Our data suggest a mechanism that could account for any possible cross-protection that may be mediated by HIV-2-specific CD8+ T cells against HIV-1 infection. Furthermore, they have implications for HIV vaccine development, demonstrating an association between a polyclonal, virus-specific CD8+ T cell response and an enhanced capacity to tolerate substitutions within T cell epitopes.