Numerous studies indicate that CD4 T cells are required for acute cardiac allograft rejection. However, the precise role for CD4 T cells in this response has remained ambiguous owing to the multipotential properties of this T-cell subpopulation. In the current study, we demonstrate the capacity of CD4 T cells to serve as direct effector cells of cardiac allograft rejection. We show that CD4 T cells are both necessary and sufficient for acute graft rejection, as indicated by adoptive transfer experiments in immune-deficient SCID and rag1(-/-) recipients. We have analyzed the contribution of direct (donor MHC class II restricted) and indirect (host MHC class II restricted) antigen recognition in CD4-mediated rejection. Acute CD4 T cell-mediated rejection required MHC class II expression by the allograft, indicating the importance of direct graft recognition. In contrast, reciprocal experiments indicate that CD4 T cells can acutely reject allogeneic cardiac allografts established in rag1(-/-) hosts that were also MHC class II deficient. This latter result indicates that indirect presentation of donor antigens by host MHC class II is not required for acute CD4-mediated rejection. Taken together, these results indicate that CD4 T cells can serve as effector cells for primary acute cardiac allograft rejection, predominantly via direct donor antigen recognition and independent of indirect reactivity.