T cell recognition of type II collagen (CII) is a crucial event in the induction of collagen-induced arthritis in the mouse. Several CII peptides have been shown to be of importance, dependent on which MHC haplotype the mouse carries. By sequencing the rat CII and comparing the sequence with mouse, human, bovine and chicken CII, we have found that the immunodominant peptides all differ at critical positions compared with the autologous mouse sequence. Transgenic expression of the immunodominant Aq-restricted heterologous CII 256-270 epitope inserted into type I collagen (TSC mice) or type II collagen (MMC-1 mice) led to epitope-specific tolerance. Immunization of TSC mice with chick CII led to arthritis and immune responses, dependent on the subdominant, Aq-restricted and chick-specific CII 190-200 epitope. Immunization of F1 mice, expressing both H-2q and H-2r as well as transgenic expression of the Aq-restricted CII 256-270 epitope in cartilage, with bovine CII, led to arthritis, dependent on the Ar-restricted, bovine-specific epitope CII 607-621. These data show that the immunodominance of CII recognition is directed towards heterologous determinants, and that T cells directed towards the corresponding autologous epitopes are tolerated without evidence of active suppression.