There is evidence that T cells can "directly" recognize intact allo-MHC molecules on the surface of allogeneic stimulator or target cells, and/or "indirectly" recognize processed allo-MHC peptides presented by self antigen-presenting cells (APCs). We and others have recently demonstrated that in vivo-primed rat CD4+ T cells recognize and proliferate to specific polymorphic amino acid sequences when presented as MHC allopeptides by self APCs. Studies on the mechanisms of indirect T cell recognition of alloantigen are now reported. First, we studied the immunogenicity of 4 synthetic polymorphic class II MHC allopeptides representing full-length sequences of the hypervariable domains of RT1.Du beta (DR or I-E-like) in several responder strains: LEW (RT1(l)), ACI (RT1a), BUF (RT1b), BN (RT1n), and control syngeneic WF (RT1u) strains. Immunogenicity of the individual 25mer allopeptides varied in the different responder strains, indicating that self-restricted T cell recognition of allo-MHC peptides is determined not only by polymorphisms, but also by the responder MHC genotype. Self-restricted CD4+ T cell recognition of processed allo-MHC peptides has been shown to occur during acute skin and cardiac allograft rejection, and there is evidence that this pathway may play an important role in initiating and amplifying the immune response to allografts. T cells from LEW animals primed in vivo by WF (RT1u) vascularized renal allografts were capable of proliferating to the RT1.Du beta peptides as early as 3 days postengraftment, when presented by self APCs. We then tested the effects of various immunosuppressive drugs on self-restricted primed T cell proliferative response to an immunogenic MHC allopeptide in vitro. Methylprednisolone, cyclosporine, and FK506 inhibited the proliferative response of RT1.Du beta 2-primed LEW T cells in a dose-dependent fashion. In addition, a single injection of cyclosporine (25 mg/kg i.m.) to LEW recipients of WF renal allografts on the day of transplantation completely abolished the proliferative response of in vivo-primed T cells to RT1.Du beta 2, indicating the susceptibility of the indirect pathway of allorecognition to conventional immunosuppressive drugs.