T lymphocytes with alpha beta receptors recognize antigen in association with the polymorphic products of the class I and class II loci of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This presentation of antigen results from the intracellular generation of protein fragments, and the binding and transport to the cell surface of these peptides in stable association with the MHC class I and class II molecules. Each class of MHC molecule appears specialized for capture of peptides present in a particular intracellular compartment. We describe here the structural basis of peptide-MHC molecule interaction, the differences in biochemical behavior that focus the two classes of MHC molecules on peptides of distinct size and location, and the cell biology of MHC molecule transport, peptide generation, and intracellular movement. The importance of conformational changes accompanying peptide binding that affect subunit stability of MHC molecules, and the relationship between these changes and the handling of proteins by intracellular chaperones, are emphasized as key features in the operation of the class I and class II presentation pathways.