An epitope within the 60 kD Chlamydia trachomatis heat shock protein (hsp) 60, recognized by a HLA-DRB1*0401-restricted T cell clone from a reactive arthritis patient, has been characterized. Stimulatory peptides contained a nine amino acid sequence (residues 38-46) predicted by algorithm to confer strong binding to DRB1*0401, with valine in the P1 position. The overall length of the peptide was critical for efficient recognition; peptides with at least one residue N-terminal to the putative P1 position were markedly more stimulatory than a peptide whose N-terminal is the P1 valine. Optimal responses were seen with 14mer peptides having two to three amino acids N- and C-terminal to the core 9mer. The sequence of the defined epitope is identical in hsp60 from both C. trachomatis and C. pneumoniae. Since the latter is a common respiratory pathogen, patients infected with C. trachomatis may already be primed for responses to hsp60 by prior infection with C. pneumoniae. Such secondary responses are important in the pathogenesis of chlamydia-induced inflammatory diseases such as trachoma. Priming by infection with enteric organisms was considered because of the similarity of the epitope sequence in Escherichia coli hsp60. However, although an E. coli-related peptide was recognized, intact E. coli hsp60 was not, suggesting that the epitope is cryptic in E. coli hsp60. Human hsp60 has six amino acid differences from chlamydial hsp60 in the epitope sequence and was not recognized. Thus cross-reactive recognition of self hsp60 could not be implicated in the pathogenesis of chlamydia-induced reactive arthritis in this patient.