We have determined the half-life in vivo of antigen/MHC class II complexes in different organ microenvironments. Mice were "pulsed" with myoglobin intravenously and MHC class II-positive antigen-presenting cell (APC) populations from different organs were isolated after various time intervals. Specific antigen/MHC complexes were quantitated by co-cultivation of the APC subsets with myoglobin-specific T-T hybridoma cells in vitro. Half-lives of antigen/MHC complexes differed both between organs and between compartments of the same organ. Half-lives in peripheral organs (spleen and bone marrow) ranged between 3 and 8 h, whereas in the thymus half-lives between 13 h (cortical epithelial cells) and 22 h (medullary dendritic cells) were observed. Half lives in vivo were independent of antigen processing, since intact protein or antigenic peptides yielded similar values. The considerably longer half-life of peptide/MHC complexes in the thymus as compared to peripheral organs may reflect the distinct role which antigen presentation plays in both organs, i.e. induction of tolerance versus induction of immunity.