The T cell response to the lambda repressor cI protein is directed to the same region of the protein (residues 12-26) in both BALB/c and A/J mice. A panel of T cell hybridomas specific for P12-26 in the context of either I-Ek or I-Ad have been isolated To further understand the molecular interaction between the TCR and the Ia-P12-26 complex, the primary structures of the TCR of five T cell hybridomas have been determined. Southern and Northern analyses indicate that two members of the V alpha 3 gene family are used by 13 out of 14 I-Ek-restricted T cells. Four different V beta genes are used by these T cell hybridomas, while the majority (8 out of 13) express V beta 1 in combination with the J beta 2.1 element. No clear correlation can be seen in this system between gene usage and MHC restriction. In addition, the fine specificity of I-Ek-restricted T cells to a single amino acid substitution [Phe22/His22]P12-26 is not attributed to the usage of particular V alpha and V beta elements. The V alpha 3 family gene is also used by a few I-Ad-restricted T cells. Interestingly, these I-Ad T cells share a reactivity pattern more similar to that of I-Ek-restricted T cells than other I-Ad-restricted T cells. The nonrandom selection V alpha 3 is also demonstrated by the fact that V alpha 3 is used by P12-26-specific, but not by cytochrome c- or staphylococcal nucleus-specific, I-Ek-restricted T cells. This suggests that although antigen specificity may not be accounted for by either chain of the TCR, the members of V alpha 3 genes may be selected by the antigen (P12-26).