Bacterial superantigens such as Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin A (SEA) are very potent stimulators of T cells. They bind to the Vbeta region of the TCR and to MHC class II, stimulating T cells at nanomolar concentrations. Using surface plasmon resonance measurements, we find that binding between the individual components of the complex (TCR-class II, TCR-SEA, SEA-class II) is very weak, but that the stability of the trimolecular complex is considerably enhanced, reaching an affinity similar to that found for TCR interactions with MHC:peptide ligand. Thus, the potency of SEA in stimulation of T cells is not due to particularly strong affinities between the proteins, but to a cooperative effect of interactions in the TCR-SEA-MHC class II trimolecular complex that brings the kinetics into a similar range to binding of conventional Ags. This range may be the optimum for T cell activation.