The alphabeta TCR recognizes peptides bound to MHC molecules. In the present study, we analyzed the interaction of a soluble TCR alpha chain variable domain (Valpha4.2-Jalpha40; abbreviated to Valpha4.2) with the MHC class II molecule I-Au. Valpha4.2 bound specifically to I-Au expressed on the surface of a transfected thymoma cell line. Modifications in the amino acid residues located within the three complementarity-determining regions (CDRs) of the Valpha domain did not markedly affect this interaction. However, mutation of glutamic acid to alanine at position 69 of the fourth hypervariable region (HV4alpha) significantly increased the binding. Antibody inhibition studies suggested that the binding site was partly contributed by a region of the beta chain of I-Au. Furthermore, the binding of Valpha4.2 to the MHC molecule was dependent on the nature of the peptide bound in the groove. Soluble Valpha4.2 specifically inhibited the activation of TCR transfectants by I-Au-expressing cells pulsed with an N-terminal peptide of myelin basic protein. Valpha4.2 also bound to MHC class II-expressing spleen cell populations from mice of the H-2(u) and H-2(d) haplotypes. The binding of Valpha4.2 to I-A molecules might explain the immunoregulatory effects reported previously for TCR alpha chains. This Valpha4.2 interaction may also be relevant to models of antigen presentation involving the binding of intact proteins to MHC class II molecules followed by their processing to generate epitopes suitable for T cell recognition.