Proteoglycan (PG) aggrecan, a major macromolecular component of cartilage, is highly immunogenic; it induces arthritis in genetically susceptible BALB/c mice. The present study maps the T-cell epitope repertoire of cartilage PG by identifying a total of 27 distinct T-cell epitopes. An epitope hierarchy, accounting for the different effector functions of PG-specific T cells, and determinant spreading, has been found. T-cell responses to four epitopes were associated with arthritis induction. Some of the T-cell epitopes were full T-cell activators, whereas a number of subdominant and cryptic epitopes proved to be partial activators in vitro, inducing either cytokine secretion or T-cell proliferation, but not both. A few T-cell epitopes of the core protein of cartilage PG were clearly recognized by T cells in PG-immunized arthritic animals, but the corresponding peptides did not induce T-cell responses when injected into naive BALB/c mice; thus these T-cell epitopes were designated as "conditionally immunogenic."