We have investigated the immunogenic potential of rat heart vascular endothelial cells by their ability to induce an accelerated rejection of a relevant heart allograft, and related the immunogenic potential to the expression of class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) antigens on the endothelial cell surface. Only 12% of freshly isolated rat vascular endothelial cells express class II antigens in serum-free medium, and the level of expression is low as judged by immunoperoxidase staining and/or the ability of endothelial cells to bind staphylococci to the cell surface after treatment with monoclonal antibodies to the class II molecule. On the other hand, 99% of the endothelial cells under the same conditions express class I, and the level of expression is high. The class II antigen expression of vascular endothelial cells can be upregulated to more than 98% by recombinant gamma-interferon in vitro--and, concomitantly, the level of expression becomes high, even on the cell surface. Treatment with gamma-interferon did not substantially alter the level of class I expression. The endothelial cells expressing class II antigens weakly, are also weakly immunogenic in vivo: 10(7) endothelial cells are required to reduce the graft survival by 50% of that of the unprimed host. On the contrary, the endothelial cells of the same lineage induced to express class II antigens by gamma-interferon in vitro are highly immunogenic in vivo, as immunogenic as freshly-isolated spleen dendritic cells: only 10(4) endothelial cells are required to induce a 50% reduction of graft survival. These observations demonstrate for the first time that rat vascular endothelial cells are immunogenic in a primary transplantation response in vivo--and, moreover, that the immunogenic capacity of the endothelial cells is directly proportional to the extent of class II MHC antigen expression on the cell surface.