Chemical cross-linking and gel permeation chromatography were used to examine early events in the biogenesis of class I histocompatibility molecules. We show that newly synthesized class I heavy chains associate rapidly and quantitatively with an 88-kD protein in three murine tumor cell lines. This protein (p88) does not appear to possess Asn-linked glycans and it is not the abundant ER protein, GRP94. The class I-p88 complex exists transiently (t1/2 = 20-45 min depending on the specific class I heavy chain) and several lines of evidence suggest that p88 dissociates from the complex while still in the ER. Dissociation is not triggered upon binding of beta 2-microglobulin to the heavy chain (t1/2 = 2-5 min). However, the rate of dissociation does correlate with the characteristic rate of ER to Golgi transport for the particular class I molecule studied. Consequently, dissociation of p88 may be rate limiting for ER to Golgi transport. Class I molecules bind antigenic peptides, apparently in the ER, for subsequent presentation to cytotoxic T lymphocytes at the cell surface. p88 could promote peptide binding or it may retain class I molecules in the ER during formation of the ternary complex of heavy chain, beta 2- microglobulin, and peptide.