Staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA) has two distinct binding sites for major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules. The aspartic acid located at position 227 (D227) in the COOH terminus of SEA is one of the three residues involved in its interaction with the DR beta chain, whereas the phenylalanine 47 (F47) of the NH2 terminus is critical for its binding to the DR alpha chain. Upon interaction with MHC class II molecules, SEA triggers several cellular events leading to cytokine gene expression. In the present study, we have demonstrated that, contrary to wild-type SEA, stimulation of the THP1 monocytic cell line with SEA mutated at position 47 (SEAF47A) or at position 227 (SEAD227A) failed to induce interleukin 1 beta and tumor necrosis factor-alpha messenger RNA expression. Pretreatment of the cells with a 10-fold excess of either SEAF47A or SEAD227A prevented the increase in cytokine messenger RNA induced by wild-type SEA. However, cross-linking of SEAF47A or SEAD227A bound to MHC class II molecules with F(ab')2 anti-SEA mAb leads to cytokine gene expression, whereas cross-linking with F(ab) fragments had no effect. Taken together, these results indicate that cross-linking of two MHC class II molecules by one single SEA molecule is a requirement for cytokine gene expression.