Antigen (Ag)-driven selection of helper T cells (Th) in normal animals has been difficult to study and remains poorly understood. Using the major histocompatibility complex class II- restricted murine response to pigeon cytochrome c (PCC), we provide evidence for both preimmune and Ag-driven selection in the evolution of Ag-specific immunity in vivo. Before antigenic challenge, most Valpha11(+)Vbeta3(+) Th (70%) express a critical complementarity-determining region 3 (CDR3) residue (glutamic acid at TCR-alpha93) associated with PCC peptide contact. Over the first 5 d of the primary response, PCC-responsive Valpha11(+)Vbeta3(+) Th expressing eight preferred CDR3 features are rapidly selected in vivo. Clonal dominance is further propagated through selective expansion of the PCC-specific cells with T cell receptor (TCR) of the "best fit." Ag-driven selection is complete before significant emergence of the germinal center reaction. These data argue that thymic selection shapes TCR-alpha V region bias in the preimmune repertoire; however, Ag itself and the nongerminal center microenvironment drive the selective expansion of clones with preferred TCR that dominate the response to Ag in vivo.