One of the major mechanisms for establishing self-tolerance is the clonal deletion of self-reactive T cells during their development in the thymus. Using a TCR transgenic mouse model, we have established a quantitative ex vivo assay for examining the sensitivity and specificity of negative selection. Thymic organ cultures established from mice of varying MHC haplotypes were incubated with antigen, and the efficiency of clonal deletion assessed. We show here that clonal deletion of CD4+8+ thymocytes is sensitive to both the gene dosage and the allelic variation of MHC class II molecules expressed on thymic antigen-presenting cells. We also find that when epithelial cells in the thymic cortex are the only antigen-presenting cells expressing the appropriate MHC class II molecules, negative selection of CD4+8+ cells is as efficient as when antigen is presented on all thymic antigen-presenting cells. These studies demonstrate that the induction of self-tolerance via clonal deletion in the thymus is a function not only of antigen concentration, but also of MHC class II cell-surface density. In addition, together with the reports of others, these results confirm that cortical epithelial cells can mediate negative selection, and demonstrate that they do so in the intact thymic microenvironment.