The role of endothelial cells (EC) in initiating a primary T cell response is of importance in clinical transplantation and autoimmunity since EC are the first allogeneic target encountered by the recipient's immune system and may display tissue-specific autoantigens in the context of an inflammatory response. In this study, we have investigated the antigen-presenting cell function of human umbilical vein-derived EC (HUVEC), depleted of constitutively major histocompatibility complex class II+ cells and induced to express class II molecules by interferon-gamma. The results show that HUVEC do not express B7 but can support proliferation by antigen-specific T cell clones. In contrast, they were unable to initiate a primary alloresponse using three independent HUVEC cultures and MHC class II-mismatched CD4+ T cells from eight donors. The response to HUVEC was reconstituted by trans-costimulation provided by DAP.3 transfectants expressing human B7.1. Coculture of peripheral blood T cells with EC expressing allogeneic DR molecules had markedly different effects on CD45RO+ and RA+ subsets. Subsequent reactivity of the RO+ T cells was unaffected by exposure to EC, indicating a neutral encounter. In contrast, culture with DR+ EC induced allospecific nonresponsiveness in RA+ T cells.