One purpose of this study was to examine the concept of T cell immunodominance employing a neonatal tolerance model. The extent to which a single T cell recognition site can represent the total T cell response to hepatitis B core Ag (HBcAg) was examined in the B10.S and B10 murine strains. It was shown that the entire B10.S T cell response to HBcAg was focused on a single immunodominant site represented by residues 120-131. This was demonstrated by exposing B10.S neonatal mice to p120-140 or p120-131, which resulted in a state of T cell tolerance to the entire HBcAg. In contrast, p120-140 contained an immunogenic T cell site for B10 mice, p129-140, but this site was nontolerogenic. Similarly, injection of p120-140 into (B10.S X B10)F1 neonatal mice resulted in tolerization of p120-131-specific, I-As-restricted T cells, but not of p129-140-specific, I-Ab-restricted T cells. The second purpose of this study was to attempt to explain the immunologic basis of an immunogenic yet nontolerogenic T cell determinant. It was shown that the p120-131 T cell site, which is immunogenic and tolerogenic in B10.S mice, could be converted into an immunogenic/nontolerogenic T cell site by a single amino acid substitution in either residue 127 or 129. Residues 127 and 129 were previously shown to be involved in interaction with MHC class II molecules (agretopic). These results demonstrated that the relative avidity of a peptide-MHC interaction can influence T cell tolerance induction. Furthermore, the results suggest that a higher threshold of peptide-MHC avidity may be required to induce T cell tolerance as compared to the threshold of peptide-MHC avidity required to immunize T cells.