Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) particles are composed of a major polypeptide, p25, and additional polypeptides of higher m.w., namely p33 and p39, are variably present. All three polypeptides share the 226 amino acid residues of the S region: p33 consists of the p25 sequence plus an NH2-terminal 55 residues (pre-S(2], and p39 consists of the p33 sequence plus an NH2-terminal 108-119 residues (pre-S(1). In previous studies we demonstrated the influence of two Ir genes on the humoral and cellular immune responses to the S region and identified nonresponder phenotypes (H-2f,s). Subsequent studies showed that the immune response to the pre-S(2) region was regulated by H-2-linked genes independently of the S region response, such that immunization of S region nonresponder, pre-(S2) region responder mice (H-2s) with HBsAg/p33 circumvented nonresponse to the S region. In the present study, we have extended this analysis to the pre-S(1) region of HBsAg, with the following results: 1) and pre-S(1) region is immunogenic at the T and B cell levels; 2) anti-pre-S(1) specific antibody production is regulated by H-2-linked genes and can be independent of anti-S and anti-pre-S(2) antibody production; 3) immunization of H-2f strains with HBsAg/p39 particles containing the pre-S(1) region can bypass nonresponsiveness to the S and pre-S(2) regions in terms of antibody production; 4) two synthetic peptides, p32-53 and p94-117, define murine and human antibody binding sites on the pre-S(1) region, and p1-21 and p12-32 define additional human antibody binding sites; 5) pre-S(1)-specific T cells can be elicited in S and pre-S(2) region nonresponder mice (H-2f) and provide functional T cell help for S-pre-S(2)-, and pre-S(1)-specific antibody production; and 6) a T cell recognition site in the pre-S(1) region, p12-32 was identified. These results are relevant to HBV vaccine development, and possibly to viral clearance mechanisms, since the higher m.w. polypeptides are preferentially expressed on intact virions.