Previous studies on the role of specific residues of the peptide or MHC molecule in Ag presentation have revealed the sensitivity of this complex system to even small changes in structure. In our study, we have analyzed the effect of amino acid substitution in a major CD4+ T cell determinant (T1) of HIV-1 gp160 on binding and recognition in the context of various E alpha E beta MHC class II molecules. Individual alanine substitutions at all but three positions had little or no negative effect on either MHC binding or recognition by a specific T hybridoma, whereas substitutions with larger side chains often diminished reactivity. A poly-alanine peptide containing only four of the original residues was an effective MHC class II binder and in vivo immunogen, although lacking the ability to stimulate the hybridoma. Replacement of a glutamic acid in T1 with alanine or a size-conservative, uncharged glutamine, but not a negatively charged aspartic acid produced a peptide at least 100-fold more potent than the parent peptide, indicating an inhibitory effect of the negative charge. Conversely, substitution of a glutamic acid for valine at position 29 in the floor of the peptide binding site of the E alpha E beta molecule decreased functional presentation of this peptide by more than 2 logs. However, these two effects of glutamic acid were not complementary and were mediated by distinct mechanisms, as the change in the peptide altered the extent of binding to class II, but the change in the MHC molecule decreased recognition without inhibiting peptide binding. Taken together, the data all suggest the conclusion that changes in side-chains of peptides and MHC molecules affect Ag presentation and T cell stimulation most often by introducing dominant negative or interfering groups that prevent or alter the pattern of binding events primarily mediated by a very limited number of other residues in the Ag or presenting molecule. These results have important implications for understanding the biochemistry of peptide-MHC-TCR interactions and for the possible design of vaccines both more potent and less subject to allele-specific limitations on immunogenicity.