The ability to down-regulate major histocompatibility complex class I antigen expression on allografts prior to transplantation would be expected to improve their survival in immunocompetent recipients. In order to identify genetic mechanisms that mediate attenuation of MHC class I antigen expression, we have begun characterizing H-2Kb surface null somatic cell variants derived from an H-2 heterozygous tumor cell line (H-2bxH-2d). These variants have sustained a modification in cell surface MHC phenotype, as evidenced by their failure to be recognized by both anti-H-2Kb antibodies and cytotoxic T lymphocytes. The mutant phenotype for one such variant (designated 69.9.15) was marked by the expression of abundant H-2Kb mRNA and immuno-precipitable H-2Kb protein in cell lysates. The failure in cell surface expression of the H-2Kb antigen was caused by a single base change (G to A transition) in exon 3, encoding the second external domain (a2) of the H-2Kb molecule. The mutation resulted in the substitution of Tyr for Cys at amino acid position 164, thereby disrupting an intrachain disulfide linkage formed between Cys 101 and 164. In contrast to the wild-type H-2Kb gene, DNA-mediated transfer of the mutant H-2Kb gene into mouse L cell fibroblasts failed to result in cell surface expression of the H-2Kb antigen, although both the wild-type and mutant genes were transcribed to equivalent levels. These data indicate that a genetic event as limited as somatic point mutation can abrogate expression of a MHC class I antigen and provide support for the hypothesis that protein folding plays an important role in the cell surface expression of MHC class I molecules.