HLA-DQ2 predisposes an individual to celiac sprue by presenting peptides from dietary gluten to intestinal CD4(+) T cells. A selectively deamidated multivalent peptide from gluten (LQLQPFPQPELPYPQPELPYPQPELPYPQPQPF; underlined residues correspond to posttranslational Q --> E alterations) is a potent trigger of DQ2 restricted T cell proliferation. Here we report equilibrium and kinetic measurements of interactions between DQ2 and (i) this highly immunogenic multivalent peptide, (ii) its individual constituent epitopes, (iii) its nondeamidated precursor, and (iv) a reference high-affinity ligand of HLA-DQ2 that is not recognized by gluten-responsive T cells from celiac sprue patients. The deamidated 33-mer peptide efficiently exchanges with a preloaded peptide in the DQ2 ligand-binding groove at pH 5.5 as well as pH 7.3, suggesting that the peptide can be presented to T cells comparably well through the endocytic pathway or via direct loading onto extracellular HLA-DQ2. In contrast, the monovalent peptides, and the nondeamidated precursor, as well as the tight-binding reference peptide show a much poorer ability to exchange with a preloaded peptide in the DQ2 binding pocket, especially at pH 7.3, suggesting that endocytosis of these peptides is a prerequisite for T cell presentation. At pH 5.5 and 7.3, dissociation of the deamidated 33-mer peptide from DQ2 is much slower than dissociation of its constituent monovalent epitopes or the nondeamidated precursor but faster than dissociation of the reference high-affinity peptide. Oligomeric states involving multiple copies of the DQ2 heterodimer bound to a single copy of the multivalent 33-mer peptide are not observed. Together, these results suggest that the remarkable antigenicity of the 33-mer gluten peptide is primarily due to its unusually efficient ability to displace existing ligands in the HLA-DQ2 binding pocket, rather than an extremely low rate of dissociation.