Antigen recognition by interleukin 2 (IL 2)-producing T lymphocytes can lead to two distinct outcomes, depending on the nature of the antigen-presenting cell. Recognition of antigen presented by specialized antigen-presenting cells leads to T cell activation; in contrast, antigen presentation by cells which lack "accessory function" can lead to a state of specific nonresponsiveness, which is characterized by a failure to produce IL 2. We have shown in this study that co-culture of an HLA-DR1/4-restricted, influenza hemagglutinin-specific T cell clone with a specific peptide presented by interferon-gamma-induced DR4-expressing keratinocytes causes tolerance induction. This effect was DR restricted, in that it required pre-incubation of the T cell clone with keratinocytes expressing an appropriate DR type (DR4Dw14). The induction of T cell tolerance was also antigen specific; no inhibition resulted from pre-incubation of the clone with an irrelevant peptide. Furthermore cell to cell contact appeared to be necessary, and the addition of supernatant from interferon-gamma-induced keratinocytes did not cause any inhibition. This phenomenon may have relevance to the immunogenicity of transplanted cultured keratinocytes and to the effects of major histocompatibility complex class II induction on non-bone marrow-derived cells. Presentation of tissue-specific autoantigens by cells such as keratinocytes may provide a mechanism of avoiding, rather than stimulating, autoimmune reactions in the context of a local inflammatory response.