Genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is linked to the MHC class II allele HLA-DR4. The charge of the amino acid at DRbeta71 in the peptide-binding site appears to be critical in discriminating DR molecules linked to increased disease susceptibility. We have determined the 2.5 A x-ray structure of the DR4 molecule with the strongest linkage to RA (DRB1*0401) complexed with a human collagen II peptide. Details of a predicted salt bridge between lysine DRbeta71 and aspartic acid at the P4 peptide position suggest how it may participate in both antigen binding and TCR activation. A model is proposed for the DR4 recognition of collagen II (261-273), an antigen immunodominant in human-transgenic mouse models of RA.