Staphylococcal pathogenesis is regulated by a two-component quorum-sensing system, agr, activated upon binding of a self-coded autoinducing peptide (AIP) to the receptor-histidine kinase, AgrC. The AIPs consist of a thiolactone macrocyle and an exocyclic "tail", both of which are important for function. In this report, characterization of the unique AIPs from the four known agr specificity groups of Staphylococcus aureus has been completed, along with analysis of cross-group inhibition of AgrC activation by each of the four AIPs. The following conclusions have been drawn: (i) The native thiolactone macrocyle and tail are necessary and sufficient for full activation by the AIPs, whereas the AIP-I macrocycle alone is a partial agonist. (ii) The native N-terminus is less critical, as that of AIP-I can be modified without affecting bioactivity, although that of AIP-III cannot. (iii) The ring and tail may function differently in different AIPs. Thus the group I and IV AIPs differ at a single (endocyclic) residue, which is the determinant of AIP specificity for these two groups and is essential for function. A similarly critical residue in AIP-II, however, is exocyclic. (iv) Cross-inhibition is more tolerant of sequence and structural diversity than is activation, suggesting that the AIPs interact differently with cognate than with heterologous receptors. (v) Chimeric peptides, in which the tails and macrocycles are switched, do not activate and instead inhibit receptor activation. These data suggest a model in which activation and inhibition involves different binding orientations within the ligand binding pocket of each receptor.