The minimum structural requirements for peptide interactions with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules and with T cell receptors (TCRs) were examined. In this report we show that substituting alanines at all but five amino acids in the myelin basic protein (MBP) peptide Ac1-11 does not alter its ability to bind A alpha uA beta u (MHC class II molecules), to stimulate specific T cells and, surprisingly, to induce experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) in (PL/J x SJL/J)F1 mice. Most other amino acid side chains in the Ac1-11 peptide are essentially irrelevant for T cell stimulation and for disease induction. Further analysis revealed that binding to A alpha uA beta u occurred with a peptide that consists mainly of alanines and only three of the original residues of Ac1-11. Moreover, when used as a coimmunogen with MBP Ac1-11, this peptide inhibited EAE. The finding that a specific in vivo response can be generated by a peptide containing only five native residues provides evidence that disease-inducing TCRs recognize only a very short sequence of the MHC-bound peptide.