By using the model Ag, chicken OVA, the proteolytic events required for effective presentation of the antigenic epitope, OVA323-339 to H-2d-restricted Th cells were investigated. First, the ability of aspartyl and thiol proteases to generate antigenic fragments of Ova in vitro was determined. It was found that cathepsin D, an aspartyl protease, digested OVA to fragments that could be recognized by Th cells without further processing by APC. Cathepsin B, a thiol protease, was unable to generate antigenic fragments of OVA in vitro. These results provide evidence that APC do not require thiol protease activity for processing OVA. In contrast, APC were unable to present OVA to Th cells when thiol protease inhibitors were added to the incubation. Taken together, these observations indicate that thiol proteases may be important, not for processing, OVA, but for presentation of processed fragments by APC. This conclusion is supported by evidence obtained from experiments in which APC were treated with thiol protease inhibitors before addition of the antigenic peptide, OVA323-339. Under these conditions, the capacity of I-Ad at the cell surface to present OVA323-339 to Th cells was reduced. The results of these experiments provide evidence that Ag presentation of OVA may be achieved through the action of two different classes of proteases: aspartyl proteases such as cathepsin D, which process OVA to antigenic fragments, and thiol proteases such as cathepsin B, which are important for expression of functional MHC II molecules by APC.