We previously demonstrated that in vivo antibody production to HBsAg in the mouse is regulated by at least two immune response (Ir) genes mapping in the I-A (HBs-Ir-1) and I-C (HBs-Ir-2) subregions of the H-2 locus. To confirm that H-2-linked Ir genes regulate the immune response to HBsAg at the T cell level and to determine if the same Ir genes function in T cell activation as in B cell activation, the HBsAg-specific T cell responses of H-2 congenic and intra-H-2 recombinant strains were analyzed. HBsAg-specific T cell proliferation, IL 2 production, and the surface marker phenotype of the proliferating T cells were evaluated. Additionally, T cell-antigen-presenting cell (APC) interactions were examined with respect to genetic restriction and the role of Ia molecules in HBsAg presentation. The HBsAg-specific T cell proliferative responses of H-2 congenic and intra-H-2 recombinant strains generally paralleled in vivo anti-HBs production in terms of the Ir genes involved, the hierarchy of responses status among H-2 haplotypes, antigen specificity, and kinetics. However, the correlation was not absolute in that several strains capable of producing group-specific anti-HBs in vivo did not demonstrate a group-specific T cell proliferative response to HBsAg. The proliferative responses to subtype- and group-specific determinants of HBsAg were mediated by Thy-1+, Lyt-1+2- T cells, and a possible suppressive role for Lyt-1-2+ T cells was observed. In addition to T cell proliferation, HBsAg-specific T cell activation could be measured in terms of IL 2 production, because anti-HBs responder but not nonresponder HBs-Ag-primed T cells quantitatively produced Il 2 in vitro. Finally, the T cell proliferative response to HBsAg was APC dependent and genetically restricted in that responder but not nonresponder parental APC could reconstitute the T cell response of (responder X nonresponder)F1 mice, and Ia molecules encoded in both the I-A and I-E subregion are involved in HBsAg-presenting cell function.