The present results demonstrate that CD4+ T cells activated in the primary in vivo response to antigen produce distinct patterns of cytokines depending upon the MHC class II haplotype of the responding mice. I-As mice were found to selectively activate IL-2/IFN-gamma-producing CD4+ T cells, whereas I-Ab mice exhibited selective activation of IL-4-producing CD4+ T cells in response to collagen IV. The effector response phenotype was found to correlate with the cytokine phenotype of CD4+ T cells activated in vivo; IL-2/IFN-gamma-producing cells giving rise to proliferative (cell-mediated) responses, IL-4-producing cells leading to secondary IgG (humoral) responses. Together the data support the notion that the outcome of a given immune response (e.g., protection vs. onset, tolerance vs. autoimmunity) may be determined in part by the type of CD4+ T cells initially activated by antigen. Moreover, the present experiments demonstrate for the first time that polymorphism in class II MHC can determine such selective activation of different cytokine-producing CD4+ T cell phenotypes.