T lymphocytes require a foreign antigen to be presented on a cell surface in association with a self-transplantation antigen before they can recognize it effectively. This phenomenon is known as major histocompatibility complex (MHC) restriction1. It is not clear how an incalculably large number of foreign proteins form unique complexes with a very limited number of MHC molecules. We studied the recognition properties of T cells specific for a peptide derived from bacteriophage A cl protein. Analogues of this peptide, as well as peptides derived from other unrelated antigens which can be presented in the context of the same MHC molecule, can competitively inhibit activation of these T cells by the cl peptide. Furthermore, these unrelated antigens can stimulate cl-specific T cells if certain specific amino-acid residues are replaced. Here we suggest a model in which all antigens give rise to peptides that can bind to the same site on the MHC molecule. T-cell recognition of this site (which is presumed to be polymorphic) with or without antigen bound can explain self-selection in the thymus and MHC restriction. © 1986 Nature Publishing Group.