Spleen cells from B10.BR and C57BL/10 (B10) mice were compared for their ability to generate primary in vitro cytotoxic responses to syngeneic cells modified with different concentrations (from 10 to 0.031 mM) of trinitrobenzene sulfonate (TNBS) (TNP-self). Although both strains generated effector cells to TNP-self in the range of 10-0.25 mM TNBS modification, effector activity of B10 cells was weaker than that of B10.BR cells. B10 spleen cells did not respond to syngeneic stimulating cells modified at 0.1 mM or lower, whereas B10.BR cells generated effector activity even when stimulated by TNP-self modified with as low as 0.031 mM TNBS. Fluorescence analysis of the modified cells using the FACS II indicated that equivalent quantities of TNP were conjugated to the surfaces of B10.BR and B10 spleen cells for any given concentration of TNBS modification. Similar strain-dependent differences were observed when the TNP was diluted out in the cultures by reducing the number of stimulating cells modified with 10 mM TNBS. These response patterns were verified by stimulating cultures of B10.BR and B10 spleen cells either with TNP conjugated to bovine serum albumin or bovine gamma globulin (B10.BR but not B10 cells responded to TNP-conjugated proteins) or with TNBS-modified glass-adherent spleen cells. The strain-dependent differences could also be detected at the effector phase, because optimally stimulated B10.BR, but not B10 effector cells, could lyse 0.1 mM TNBS-modified syngeneic target cells. The genetic parameters associated with the response and nonresponse patterns of B10.BR and B10 mice were further investigated by comparing the cytotoxic responses to low doses of TNP-self of spleen cells from the following strains: (a) C3H/HeJ (H-2k) and C3H.SW (H-2b); (b) BALB.K (H-2k) and BALb.b (h-2b); and (c) B10.A (H-2a) and B10.D2 (H-2d). The H-2k and H-2a, but not the H-2b and H-2d, strains generated cytotoxic responses to TNP-self when the syngeneic stimulators were modified with 0.1 mM TNBS. Further studies using (B10 X B10.BR)F1 responding cells and parental or F1-modified stimulating cells, indicated that the F1 cells generated cytotoxic activity to low doses of TNP in association with H-2k but not in association with H-2b self products. The results of this study indicate that H-2-linked genetic factors, expressed in the target as well as in the responding and/or stimulating cell populations, control the ability of inbred mouse strains to generate cytotoxic effector cells to low doses of TNP-self. Such dose-dependent genetic effects may be important in the regulation of immune responses activated in vivo by chronic exposure to infectious agents.