Naturally processed peptides were acid extracted from immunoaffinity-purified HLA-DR2, DR3, DR4, DR7, and DR8. Using the complementary techniques of mass spectrometry and Edman microsequencing, > 200 unique peptide masses were identified from each allele, ranging from 1,200 to 4,000 daltons (10-34 residues in length), and a total of 201 peptide sequences were obtained. These peptides were derived from 66 different source proteins and represented sets nested at both the amino- and carboxy-terminal ends with an average length of 15-18 amino acids. Strikingly, most of the peptides (> 85%) were derived from endogenous proteins that intersect the endocytic/class II pathway, even though class II molecules are thought to function mainly in the presentation of exogenous foreign peptide antigens. The predominant endogenous peptides were derived from major histocompatibility complex-related molecules. A few peptides derived from exogenous bovine serum proteins were also bound to every allele. Four prominent promiscuous self-peptide sets (capable of binding to multiple HLA-DR alleles) as well as 84 allele-specific peptide sets were identified. Binding experiments confirmed that the promiscuous peptides have high affinity for the binding groove of all HLA-DR alleles examined. A potential physiologic role for these endogenous self-peptides as immunomodulators of the cellular immune response is discussed.