Antigen-presenting cells degrade endocytosed antigens, e.g. collagen type II, into peptides that are bound and presented to arthritogenic CD4(+) helper T cells by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules. Efficient loading of many MHC class II alleles with peptides requires the assistance of H2-M (HLA-DM in humans), a heterodimeric MHC class II-like molecule that facilitates CLIP removal from MHC class II molecules and aids to shape the peptide repertoire presented by MHC class II to CD4(+) T cells. In contrast to the HLA-DM region in humans, the beta-chain locus is duplicated in mice, with the H2-Mb1 beta-chain distal to H2-Mb2 and the H2-Ma alpha-chain gene. H2-M alleles appear to be associated with the development of autoimmune diseases. Recent data showed that Mbeta1 and Mbeta2 isoforms are differentially expressed in isolated macrophages and B cells, respectively. The tissue expression and functional role of these heterodimers in promoting CLIP removal and peptide selection have not been addressed. We utilized the human T2 cell line, which lacks part of chromosome 6 encompassing the MHC class II and DM genes, to construct transgenic cell lines expressing the MHC class II heterodimer I-A(q) alone or in the presence of H2-Malphabeta1 or H2-Malphabeta2 heterodimers. Both H2-M isoforms facilitate the exchange of CLIP for cognate peptides on I-A(q) molecules from arthritis-susceptible DBA/1 mice and induce a conformational change in I-A(q) molecules. Moreover, I-A(q) cell-surface expression is not absolutely dependent on H2-M molecules. These data suggest that I-A(q) exhibits a high affinity for CLIP since virtually all I-A(q) molecules on T2 cells were found to be associated with CLIP in the absence of both H2-M isoforms.