Cross-reactivity with environmental antigens has been postulated as a mechanism responsible for the induction of autoimmune disease. Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis is a T cell-mediated autoimmune disease model inducible in susceptible strains of laboratory animals by immunization with protein constituents of myelin. We used myelin proteolipid protein (PLP) peptide 139-151 and its analogues to define motifs to search a protein database for structural homologues of PLP139-151 and identified five peptides derived from microbial Ags that elicit immune responses that cross-react with this self peptide. Exposure of naive SJL mice to the cross-reactive environmental peptides alone was insufficient to induce autoimmune disease even when animals were treated with Ag-nonspecific stimuli (superantigen or LPS). However, immunization of SJL mice with suboptimal doses of PLP139-151 after priming with cross-reactive environmental peptides consistently induced experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Furthermore, T cell lines from mice immunized with cross-reactive environmental peptides and restimulated in vitro with PLP139-151 could induce disease upon transfer into naive recipients. These data suggest that expansion by self Ag is required to break the threshold to autoimmune disease in animals primed with cross-reactive peptides.