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Mice homozygous for the lpr gene have a defect in fas (CD95), a cell surface receptor that belongs to the tumor necrosis factor receptor family and that mediates apoptosis. This genetic abnormality results in lymphoproliferation characterized by the accumulation of CD4-CD8- (double negative [DN]) T cells, autoantibody production, and background strain-dependent, end-organ disease. Our previous results suggested that major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I may be involved in the development of DN cells. To test this hypothesis, we derived C57BL/6-lpr/lpr (B6/lpr) mice that were deficient for the beta 2- microglobulin gene (beta 2m lpr) and had no detectable class I expression. At 6 mo of age, compared with B6/lpr littermates with normal class I genes, these mice showed greatly reduced lymphadenopathy, mostly due to a dramatic decrease in the number of DN cells. Significant changes in the percentage of other T cell subsets were noted, but only gamma/delta+ T cells showed a marked increase in both percentage and absolute numbers. Analysis of T cell receptor V beta expression of the remaining DN T cells in beta 2m -lpr mice showed a shift to a CD4-like repertoire from a CD8-like repertoire in control B6/lpr mice, indicating that a small MHC class II selected DN population was unmasked in lpr mice lacking class I. We also found that the production of immunoglobulin G (IgG) autoantibodies (antichromatin and anti-single stranded DNA), total IgG and IgG2a, but not total IgM or IgM rheumatoid factor, was significantly reduced in the beta 2m -lpr mice. This work suggests that >90% of DN T cells in lpr mice are derived from the CD8 lineage and are selected on class I. However, a T cell subset selected on class II and T cells expressing gamma/delta are also affected by the lpr defect and become minor components of the aberrant DN population.