Metal ions such as nickel, cobalt, copper and palladium are known to be potent sensitizers in humans, but the antigenic determinants created by these metals as well as the mechanisms of recognition by specific T cell clones are still not elucidated. In this paper, nickel-specific T lymphocyte clones were isolated from four patients exhibiting contact dermatitis to this metal. A panel of 42 independent T cell clones was studied. They were shown to recognize nickel in the context of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules and to belong to the CD4 subset. Using fixed autologous Epstein-Barr virus-transformed B cells as antigen-presenting cells (APC), we could distinguish two distinct groups of T cell clones on the basis of processing requirements: 40% of the T cell clones were strictly processing dependent, whereas the remaining 60% could proliferate in response to nickel even in the presence of glutaraldehyde-fixed APC. Furthermore, we present arguments indicating that individual Ni-specific T cell clones cross-react with some transition metals (e.g. Cu or Pd), but not with others (e.g. Co, Cr and Pt), presented by identical MHC class II molecules. These results thus provide an explanation for the multiple metal-reactivities observed in vivo in human patients: they indicate that for Cu and Pd, these co-reactivities in vivo might be due to cross-reactivity at the clonal level. Our findings also suggest that this is not the case for cobalt allergy, which might result from cosensitization of the patient to cobalt in addition to nickel.