To generate an effective immune response, class II major histocompatibility complex molecules (MHCII) must present a diverse array of peptide ligands for recognition by T lymphocytes. Peptide/MHCII complexes are stabilized by hydrophobic anchoring of peptide side chains to pockets in the MHCII protein and the formation of hydrogen bonds to the peptide backbone. Many current models of peptide/MHCII association assume an additive and independent contribution of the interactions between major MHCII pockets and corresponding side chains in the peptide. However, significant conformational rearrangements occur in both the peptide and MHCII during binding. Therefore, we hypothesize that peptide binding to MHCII could be viewed as a folding process in which both molecules cooperate to produce the final conformation. To directly test this hypothesis, we adapt a serial mutagenesis strategy to study cooperativity in the interaction of the human MHCII HLA-DR1 and a peptide derived from influenza hemagglutinin. Substitutions in either the peptide or HLA-DR1 that are predicted to interfere with hydrogen bond formation show cooperative effects on complex stability and affinity. Substitution of a peptide side chain that provides a hydrophobic contact also contributes to the cooperative effect, suggesting a role for all energetic sources in the folding process. We propose that cooperativity throughout the peptide-binding groove reflects the folding of segments of the MHCII molecule into helices around the peptide with a concomitant folding of the peptide into a polyproline helix. The implications of cooperativity for peptide/MHCII structure and epitope selection are discussed.