In this study the genetic control of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II gene expression during the transition from B cell to plasma cell has been analyzed. Class II molecules are not expressed in plasma cells because of an active suppression resulting in the abrogation of class II gene transcription. We show here that the plasma cell-specific repressor function, designated SIR (suppressor of immune response genes), does not act directly on the transcription of class II genes, but instead on the transcription of the AIR-1 gene, whose product, the class II transactivator (CIITA), is fundamental for the regulation of the constitutive and inducible expression of MHC class II genes. This was unambiguously demonstrated by the fact that plasmacytoma x B cell hybrids carrying an AIR-1 locus derived from CIITA-expressing cells do not express CIITA-specific transcripts. Transfection of a cDNA containing the human CIITA coding sequence under the control of an heterologous promoter restores expression of human MHC class II genes in the hybrids and is responsible for de novo expression of mouse MHC class II genes in both the mouse plasmacytoma cell line and the hybrids. These results confirm and extend the notion of the functional conservation of the AIR-1 gene product across species barriers. Interestingly, in CIITA-transfected cell hybrids, cell surface expression of the human HLA-DQ heterodimer was not observed. This result was not attributable to lack of HLA-DQ alpha or -DQ beta transcription, because both transcripts were present in the CIITA-transfected hybrids, although at reduced levels. These findings further support our previous observations on the distinct regulation of expression of the human HLA-DQ class II subset, which may be thus controlled at the posttranscriptional level by a CIITA-independent mechanism.