To test for the assembly of human MHC class II molecules having an alpha chain from one isotype (HLA-DR, -DQ, or -DP) and the beta chain of another (mixed isotypic pairs), murine fibroblasts were transfected with expressible cDNAs encoding the different class II alpha and beta chains. A rapid and efficient transient transfection system was developed using a polyoma virus-based vector. Typically, 30-50% of cells transfected using this system expressed high levels of class II molecules on their surface, but only with matched isotypic pairs. Biochemical analysis of cells transfected with matched or mixed isotypic pairs of the DR and DP molecules revealed that only matched chains could pair efficiently inside the cell. Thus, the lack of expression of the two mixed isotypic pairs is due to inefficient primary assembly of the class II molecule and not to a processing or transport defect. To define what region of the beta chains controlled their assembly with alpha chains, a series of chimeric cDNA molecules containing both DR and DP beta chain sequences were constructed. Expression of these chimeric beta chains with DR and DP alpha chains was determined by cytofluorimetry and biochemical analysis. Both alpha chains paired with beta chains in which only the beta 1 domain was isotypically matched. In contrast, the pattern of expression of chimeras made at other points within the beta 1 domain was different for DR and DP. These data show that different areas of primary sequence are important for the assembly of different human class II isotypes, and suggest that HLA-DR and -DP molecules have different secondary or tertiary structures in their NH2-terminal domains.