The three-dimensional structure of an unglycosylated T cell antigen receptor (TCR) beta chain has recently been determined to 1.7 A resolution. To investigate whether this soluble beta chain (murine V beta 8.2J beta 2.1C beta 1) retains superantigen (SAG)-binding activity, we measured its affinity for various bacterial SAGs in the absence of MHC class II molecules. Dissociation constants (KDs) were determined using two independent techniques: surface plasmon resonance detection and sedimentation equilibrium. Specific binding was demonstrated to staphylococcal enterotoxins (SEs) B, C1, C2, and C3 and to streptococcal pyrogenic exotoxin A (SPEA), consistent with the known proliferative effects of these SAGs on T cells expressing V beta 8.2. In contrast, SEA, which does not stimulate V beta 8.2-bearing cells, does not bind the recombinant beta chain. Binding of the beta chain to SAGs was characterized by extremely fast dissociation rates (> 0.1 s-1), similar to those reported for certain leukocyte adhesion molecules. Whereas the beta chain bound SEC1, 2, and 3 with KDs of 0.9-2.5 microM, the corresponding value for SEB was approximately 140 microM. The much weaker binding to SEB than to SEC1, 2, or 3 was surprising, especially since SEB was found to actually be 3- to 10-fold more effective, on a molar basis, than the other toxins in stimulating the parental T cell hybridoma. We interpret these results in terms of the ability of SEC to activate T cells independently of MHC, in contrast to SEB. We have also measured SE binding to the glycosylated form of the beta chain and found that carbohydrate apparently does not contribute to recognition, even though the N-linked glycosylation sites at V beta 8.2 residues Asn24 and Asn74 are at or near the putative SAG-binding site. This result, along with the structural basis for the V beta specificity of SEs, are discussed in relation to the crystal structure of the unglycosylated beta chain.