To characterize the process of class I assembly and maturation, we have studied the Ld molecule of the mouse. Previous studies have shown that a significant proportion of intracellular and surface Ld molecules can be detected in an alternative conformation designated Ldalt1. Nascent Ldalt molecules are non-peptide ligand associated and are weakly associated with beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2m). Unexpectedly, when monoclonal antibodies were added directly to the lysis buffer, significant amounts of Ldalt/beta 2m heterodimer were detected, suggesting that beta 2m association is not necessarily sufficient to induce Ld conformation. By contrast, addition of peptide to cell lysates rapidly induced the folding of beta 2m-associated Ldalt to conformed Ld. Furthermore, the time course and dynamics of this conversion correlated precisely with peptide binding to Ld. The precursor-product relationship of Ldalt and conformed Ld was also visualized in vivo by pulse-chase analysis of BALB/c splenocytes. To investigate the factors that regulate intracellular transport of class I molecules, expression of Ld was studied in the peptide transport-deficient cell line, RMA.S-Ld, and in beta 2m-/- splenocytes. In contrast to wild-type cell lines, both Ldalt and conformed Ld are poorly expressed at the cell surface of RMA.S-Ld and beta 2m-/- splenocytes. Therefore, surface expression of Ldalt is dependent upon the concomitant expression of conformed Ld molecules. To determine whether surface Ldalt molecules can result from melting of conformed Ld molecules, surface Ld molecules were loaded with several different known Ld peptide ligands. Complexes of Ld with different ligands were found to have dramatically disparate surface half-lives. Importantly, the Ld peptide complexes that turned over the most rapidly resulted in the most gain in surface Ldalt, implying that peptide dissociation can induce the accumulation of nonconformed Ld heavy chains at the cell surface.