Relapsing experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (R-EAE) can be induced in SJL/J mice by immunization with spinal cord homogenate and adjuvant. The specific Ag(s) responsible for acute disease and subsequent relapses in this model is unknown. Myelin basic protein (BP), an encephalitogenic peptide of BP (BP 87-99), and proteolipid protein (PLP) can each induce R-EAE in SJL/J mice, and a peptide of PLP (PLP 139-151) has been reported to induce acute EAE. To determine the encephalitogens in cord-immunized mice with R-EAE, the in vitro proliferative responses of lymph node cells (LNC) and central nervous system mononuclear cells to BP, BP peptides, and PLP peptides were examined during acute EAE and during relapses. LNC responded only to PLP peptides 139-151 and 141-151 and did not respond to BP or its peptides during acute or chronic disease. Central nervous system mononuclear cells also preferentially responded to PLP 139-151 and 141-151 during acute and relapsing disease. A PLP 139-151 peptide-specific Th cell line was selected from LNC of cord-immunized donors. Five million peptide-specific line cells transferred severe relapsing demyelinating EAE to naive recipients. We conclude that PLP peptide 139-151 is the major encephalitogen for R-EAE in cord-immunized SJL/J mice. We demonstrate for the first time that Th cells specific for this peptide are sufficient to transfer relapsing demyelinating EAE. The predominance of a PLP immune response rather than a BP response in SJL/J mice suggests that genetic background may determine the predominant myelin Ag response in human demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis.