Lymph node cells from 4-wk-old MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice, but not from MRL/Mp-+/+ mice, when cultured in vitro for 5 to 7 days, will spontaneously proliferate and produce IL-2. We examined the expression of several cell surface Ag on lymph node cells from MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice before and after in vitro culture. There is an increase in the expression of Thy-1, L3T4, IL-2R, T cell activating protein, T cell receptor, and T3 complex on the surface of cultured cells. Cultured cells produced IL-3, IFN-gamma, and small but detectable amounts of IL-1 in addition to IL-2. Gamma irradiation of APC from young MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice or treatment of APC with a mAb (J11D) and C, completely abrogated their stimulatory capacity. These experiments suggest that B cells are the predominant APC responsible in the activation of autoreactive T cells in MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice. Lymph node cells from C57BL/6-lpr/lpr or C3H-lpr/lpr mice were unable to spontaneously proliferate or produce IL-2. Lymph node cells from (MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr x C57BL/6-lpr/lpr) F1 mice or (C3H-lpr/lpr x MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr) F1 mice did proliferate and produced IL-2 after in vitro culture. Using T cells from these F1 animals and APC from each parental haplotype, we found that APC from MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice induced more proliferation and greater amounts of IL-2, when compared to APC from F1 animals. APC from C57BL6-lpr/lpr mice or C3H-lpr/lpr were unable to induce spontaneous proliferation and IL-2 production. Therefore, B cells from MRL/Mp-lpr/lpr mice appear to possess unique features that enable them to activate autoreactive T cells more effectively than B cells from other mice bearing the lpr/lpr gene.