To investigate the influence of endogenous peptides on the developmental processes that occur during thymocyte selection, we have used monoclonal antibodies that preferentially recognize the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule I-Ek when it is bound to the moth cytochrome c peptide (88-103). One of these antibodies (G35) specifically blocks the positive selection of transgenic thymocytes expressing a T cell receptor that is reactive to this peptide- MHC complex. Furthermore, G35 does not block the differentiation of transgenic T cells bearing receptors for a different I-Ek-peptide complex. This antibody recognizes a subset of endogenous I-Ek-peptide complexes found on a significant fraction of thymic antigen-presenting cells, including cortical and medullary epithelial cells. The sensitivity of G35 to minor alterations in peptide sequence suggests that the thymic peptide-MHC complexes that mediate the positive selection of a particular class II MHC-restricted thymocyte are structurally related to the complexes that can activate it in the periphery.