To assess the sensitivity of B cell tolerance with respect to receptor/autoantigen affinity, we identified low affinity ligands to the 3-83 (anti-major histocompatibility complex class I) antibody and tested the ability of these ligands to induce central and peripheral tolerance in 3-83 transgenic mice. Several class I protein alloforms, including Kbm3 and Dk, showed remarkably low, but detectable, affinity to 3-83. The 3-83 antibody bound Kb with K lambda approximately 2 x 10(5) M-1 and bound 10-fold more weakly to the Kbm3 (K lambda approximately 2 x 10(4) M-1) and Dk antigens. Breeding 3-83 immunoglobulin transgenic mice with mice expressing these ultralow affinity Kbm3 and Dk ligands resulted in virtually complete deletion of the autoreactive B cells from the peripheral lymphoid tissues. These low affinity antigens also induced receptor editing, as measured by elevated RAG mRNA levels in the bone marrow and excess levels of id- variant B cells bearing lambda light chains in the spleen. Reactive class I antigens were also able to mediate deletion of mature B cells when injected into the peritoneal cavity of 3-83 transgenic mice. Although the highest affinity ligand, Kk, was consistently able to induce elimination of the 3-83 peritoneal B cells, the lower affinity ligands were only partially effective. These results demonstrate the remarkable sensitivity of the deletion and receptor-editing mechanisms in immature B cells, and may suggest a higher affinity threshold for deletion of peripheral, mature B cells.