The immune response to viruses partially depends on the biochemical interaction between viral peptides and histocompatibility molecules. In this study, the refolding of recombinant HLA-A*0201 heavy chain and beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2-m) in the presence of peptides from influenza B nucleoprotein (BNP), influenza A matrix protein, and HIV gp120 and their analogues was examined. The plateau value for the amount of refolded complex with three peptides, a 10-mer BNP 85-94 (A86) with alanine substituted for leucine at the P2 anchor residue and two BNP 8-mers, was significantly lower than the native peptide epitope BNP 85-94 or with other peptides tested. To attempt to understand the basis for the lower yield of complex, equilibrium dissociation constants (KdS) for the two 10-mers, BNP 85-94 (A86) and BNP 85-94, were determined from association and dissociation rates and from Scatchard plots, all measured at 10 degrees C. In addition, dissociation rates were measured at 0 degrees, 26 degrees, and 37 degrees C. Although the kinetics were similar at 0 degrees and 10 degrees, at 37 degrees these two complexes had distinct rates of dissociation, resulting in relatively stable or unstable complexes. The behavior of the unstable complexes paralleled the behavior of empty complexes described in vivo; they are unstable at physiologic temperature, produced in low yield, and stabilized by low temperature. Comparison of all of the kinetic data suggests that the equilibrium amounts of the two HLA/peptide complexes (plateau values) result from distinct reaction pathways, i.e., that the molecules that form stable complexes may undergo an additional reaction to those that form unstable complexes.