A functional analysis was undertaken of the effects of mutating single amino acid residues in the alpha chain of the I-Ak molecule (to alanine; residues 50-79) on the ability of I-Ak transfectants to process and present influenza haemagglutinin to CD4+ T cell clones specific for two major antigenic sites of the HA1 subunit. In each instance, T cells were insensitive to a majority of substitutions in Ak with the exception of a few critical residues that differed for individual T cell clones. But more significantly, the failure of T cell clones to respond to mutant influenza viruses, containing drift substitutions within a T cell recognition site, in association with wild type I-Ak, could be reversed by single substitutions in Ak alpha. A T cell clone specific for HA1 120-139 failed to respond to a laboratory mutant virus (HA1 135 Gly----Arg) whereas optimal responses were observed with a mutant Ak transfectant (Ak alpha 56 Arg----Ala). Similarly, mutant transfectant 62 (Ak alpha 62 Gly----Ala) was able to present a natural variant virus A/TEX/77 to a T cell clone specific for HA1 48-67. We propose that Ak alpha 56 and Ak alpha 62 increase the affinity of association of mutant HA1 peptides for class II and therefore confer T cell recognition of variant viruses.