Dendritic cells (DC) are potent APCs, able to induce efficiently primary T cell-mediated responses to foreign Ags. To assess the efficiency of DC, as compared with other APC types, in the in vivo presentation of self-Ags to CD4+ T cells, we analyzed processing and presentation to class II-restricted T cells of endogenous naturally processed self-epitopes constitutively expressed by mouse APC. Mouse beta 2-microglobulin (m beta 2-m) peptides corresponding to residues 26-39 and 24-36 are constitutively presented, in mice expressing m beta 2-m, by I-Ad and I-Ed molecules respectively, as demonstrated by activation of m beta 2-m-specific T cell hybridomas generated in BALB/c beta 2-m-deficient mice. These dominant, naturally processed self-epitopes of m beta 2-m are presented by APC from a variety of tissues, including the thymus. To analyze the relative efficiency of different APC populations in the presentation of self-beta 2-m, the ability of purified DC, macrophages, and large or small B cells to stimulate m beta 2-m-specific T cell hybridomas was tested. Naturally processed self-m beta 2-m epitopes are constitutively presented to T cells by any class II-positive APC tested, but with highest efficiency by splenic and thymic DC, followed by macrophages, large B cells, and small B cells. This hierarchy of self-beta 2-m presentation does not depend on differential processing capacity of these APC populations, and it correlates with expression of CTLA-4 ligands and ICAM-1 molecules, rather than with expression of class II molecules.