The effect of low concentration aldehyde treatment (0.0012 to 0.005%) on the expression of HLA-DR Ag by human monocytes was investigated. This treatment was shown to selectively abolish the expression of HLA-DR determinants defined by a monomorphic mAb (YE2.36) in a rosette assay. The expression of class I MHC Ag and Fc gamma R remained unaffected. As a result, the presentation of the recall Ag tetanus toxoid and streptokinase-streptodornase (SK-SD) to freshly isolated autologous T cells and T cell clones was completely inhibited. Increasing the concentration of aldehyde to 0.05% consistently produced partial restoration of Ag-presenting capacity. Low dose aldehyde treatment did not affect monocyte viability or membrane turnover. Thus, aldehyde-treated monocytes produced a second generation of HLA-DR and expression was almost completely restored to normal after 24 h of culture. The presentation of monocyte class II Ag as alloantigens was also inhibited by low dose aldehyde treatment but inhibition was much less marked when monocytes were aldehyde treated at 2 h rather than at 24 h of culture. This is consistent with the reexpression of HLA-DR which occurred readily in the first 24 h of culture and much less readily thereafter. Low dose aldehyde treatment did not affect Ag uptake and processing. However, monocytes which had been pulsed with Ag, aldehyde-treated to abolish HLA-DR, and then cultured to allow regeneration of HLA-DR could present Ag only when given a second Ag pulse, suggesting that once the association between microbial Ag and HLA-DR had formed the Ag was not then free to reassociate with novel HLA-DR. Low dose aldehyde treatment did not affect monocyte IL-1 production, neither did it inhibit the detection of HLA-DR by soluble mAb in FACS analysis. These results are consistent with the view that low dose aldehyde treatment disrupts the tertiary structure of human Ia molecules such that allostimulatory determinants and restriction elements for exogenous Ag are rendered inaccessible to T lymphocyte receptors and to cell-bound anti-DR mAb in the rosette assay, although DR determinants may remain accessible to soluble mAb.