The number of specific complexes formed between peptide and the class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules expressed by an antigen-presenting cell (APC) after exposure to protein antigens is unknown, as is the number that activates T cells. Presentation of foreign peptides by APC takes place when many class II molecules may be occupied by autologous peptides. We have now estimated the number of specific peptide/class II complexes per APC by quantitative immunoprecipitation of I-Ak after pulsing the APC with stimulatory levels of a radioactive immunogenic peptide derived from hen egg-white lysozyme protein. T cells were activated by APC that expressed as few as 210-340 specific peptide/class II complexes (0.1% of the I-Ak molecules). These figures were confirmed using anti-CD3 antibody bound to latex beads as an alternative activating ligand. This low number explains the simultaneous presentation of multiple foreign antigens, even in the face of peptide competition.