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The capacity of dendritic cells to present protein antigens has been studied with two MHC class II-restricted, myoglobin-specific, T cell clones. Spleen dendritic cells and cultured epidermal Langerhans cells (LC) presented native myoglobin weakly and often not at all. These same populations were powerful stimulators of allogeneic T cells in the primary MLR. Freshly isolated LC were in contrast very active in presenting proteins to T cell clones but were weak stimulators of the MLR. Both fresh and cultured LC could present specific peptide fragments of myoglobin to the clones. These results suggest that dendritic cells in nonlymphoid tissues like skin can act as sentinels for presenting antigens in situ, their accessory function developing in two phases. First antigens are captured and appropriately presented. Further handling of antigen then is downregulated while the cells acquire strong sensitizing activity for the growth and function of resting T lymphocytes. The potent MLR stimulating activity of cultured epidermal LC and lymphoid dendritic cells probably reflects prior handling of antigens leading to the formation of allogeneic MHC-peptide complexes.