Although analysis of virus-specific CTL function at the peak of infection suggests that granzyme (grz) and perforin (pfp) gene expression is not coregulated, early differentiation events leading to acquisition of function are poorly understood. Using a combination of CFSE dilutions and single-cell RT-PCR, effector gene expression was determined early after CTL activation. There were low levels of pfp and grz expression at division 3, with increased expression by divisions 6-8. The increase in effector mRNA expression with division correlated with increasing ex vivo cytotoxicity. Of the mRNA transcripts detected at division 3, there was an increased frequency of grzB and grzK (compared with grzA or pfp), and this pattern was also observed at later divisions. The prevalence of OT-I CTL expressing grz/pfp mRNA was equivalent for the divided CD62L(high) and CD62L(low) sets, but the concentrations of grzB protein, levels of CTL activity, and the absolute amounts of grzB transcript were substantially greater for the CD62L(low) population. Thus, while effector gene expression can be acquired early, maturation of cytotoxic capacity requires extended differentiation.