The carboxyl terminus of the M protein of group A streptococci (GAS) is highly conserved and contains epitopes that have been shown to induce opsonic antibodies and protection against GAS infection. This region of the protein can also stimulate T cells, which can react in vitro with heart antigens. Since different segments of the carboxyl terminus may be involved in immunity to GAS and in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease (rheumatic heart disease), it is important to precisely define critical epitopes. However, the M protein is known to be a coiled coil, and a critical immunodominant antibody-binding epitope within this region (peptide 145, a 20-mer with the sequence LRRDLDASREAKK-QVEKALE) is shown here to be conformational. Thus, small synthetic overlapping peptides of 8-12 amino acids in length that span peptide 145 (p145) were unable to capture antibodies present in p145-immune mouse sera or in endemic human sera, even though antibodies raised to these small peptides coupled to diphtheria toxoid could bind the smaller peptides and, in some cases, p145. A series of mutated peptides in which every residue of p145 was sequentially altered also failed to identify critical residues for antibody binding. We thus devised a strategy to produce chimeric peptides in which small peptides copying the M protein sequence were displayed within a larger 28-mer peptide derived from the sequence of the GCN4 leucine zipper DNA binding protein of yeast. A 12-amino-acid window of the p145 sequence was inserted into the GCN4 peptide in such a way as to preserve any potential helical structure. The window was moved along one residue at a time to give a series of peptides representing p145. Circular dichroism demonstrated that these larger chimeric peptides and p145, but not a shorter 12-mer peptide, displayed alpha-helical potential in 50% trifluoroethanol. Certain chimeric peptides efficiently captured antibodies specific for p145 and thus enabled us to map the minimal antibody-binding sequence. RRDLDASREAKK, referred to as J(1)2. The chimeric peptide containing this sequence, referred to as J2, was able to inhibit opsonization of GAS by human antisera containing anti-peptide 145 antibodies. The T-cell response from p145-immunized responder B10.BR mice to J2 and J(I)2 was much lower than the response to p145 and mapped to a different peptide.