Class I major histocompatibility complex molecules require both beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2m) and peptide for efficient intracellular transport. With the exception of H-2Db and Ld, class I heavy chains have not been detectable at the surface of cells lacking beta 2m. We show that properly conformed class I heavy chains can be detected in a terminally glycosylated form indicative of cell surface expression in H-2b, H-2d, and H-2s beta 2m-/- concanavalin A (Con A)-stimulated splenocytes incubated at reduced temperature. Furthermore, we demonstrate the presence of Kb molecules at the surface of beta 2m-/- cells cultured at 37 degrees C. The mode of assembly of class I molecules encompasses two major pathways: binding of peptide to preformed "empty" heterodimers, and binding of peptide to free heavy chains, followed by recruitment of beta 2m. In support of the existence of the latter pathway, we provide evidence for a role of peptide in intracellular transport of free class I heavy chains, through analysis of Con A-stimulated splenocytes from transporter associated with antigen processing 1 (TAP1)-/-, beta 2m-/-, and double-mutant TAP1/beta 2m-/- mice.