Insulin-dependent diabetes (IDDM) is probably mediated by T lymphocytes recognizing critical beta cell autoantigens. Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) 65 is a major antigen in IDDM. T cells in both IDDM patients and controls respond to GAD 65 and certain epitopes of this molecule. To clarify the immune response to GAD 65 we established T cell clones specifically recognizing epitopes of GAD 65. We obtained T cells clones to GAD 65 peptides 161-175 (from a healthy individual), and 505-519 and 521-535 (from two IDDM patients). On extensive screening T cells responsive to peptide 161-175 were found only in controls, while T cells responsive to peptide 521-535 were found only in IDDM patients; T cells from both IDDM patients and controls responded to peptide 505-519. We could exclude simple genetic shaping of these T cell responses since the responses differed between genetically identical twins discordant for IDDM. Reactivity of T cell clones from the control to peptide 161-175 was restricted by HLA DR1 but promiscuous for HLA DR4 as DR4+ EBV transformed B cells and DR4+ mouse L-transfectants could present the peptide. As DR4+ antigen presenting cells of diabetics could present peptide 161-175 to some clones, the lack of response to this epitope in diabetic patients cannot be due to inadequate antigen presentation but is probably due to deletion of these cells either centrally or peripherally. Reactivity of clones to peptide 505-519 was either HLA DR1 or DQ1 restricted. In conclusion, T cell clones to specific epitopes of GAD 65 provide a model to clarify those differences in the immune response to this autoantigen between controls and IDDM patients.