To determine whether indirect allorecognition is involved in heart allograft rejection T cells obtained from peripheral blood and graft biopsy tissues were expanded in the presence of IL-2 and tested in limiting dilution analysis (LDA) for reactivity to synthetic peptides corresponding to the hypervariable regions of the mismatched HLA-DR antigen(s) of the donor. Serial studies of 32 patients showed that T cell reactivity to donor allopeptides was strongly associated with episodes of acute rejection. The frequency of allopeptide reactive T cells was 10-50-fold higher in the graft than in the periphery indicating that T cells activated via the indirect allorecognition pathway participate actively in acute allograft rejection. In recipients carrying a graft differing by two HLA-DR alleles the response appeared to target only one of the mismatched antigens of the donor. Indirect allorecognition was restricted by a single HLA-DR antigen of the host and directed against one immunodominant peptide of donor HLA-DR protein. However, intermolecular spreading was demonstrated in patients with multiple rejection episodes by showing that they develop allopeptide reactivity against the second HLA-DR antigen. These data imply that early treatment to suppress T cell responses through the indirect pathway of allorecognition, such as tolerance induction to the dominant donor determinant, may be required to prevent amplification and perpetuation of the rejection process.