Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is strongly associated with the
human leukocyte antigen( HLA) -DRB1locus that possesses the shared susceptibility epitope (SE) and the citrullination of self-antigens. We show how citrullinated aggrecan and vimentin epitopes bind to HLA-DRB1*04:01/04. Citrulline was accommodated within the electropositive P4 pocket of HLA-DRB1*04:01/04, whereas the electronegative P4 pocket of the RA-resistant HLA-DRB1*04:02 allomorph interacted with arginine or citrulline-containing epitopes. Peptide elution studies revealed P4 arginine–containing peptides from HLA-DRB1*04:02, but not from HLA-DRB1*04:01/04. Citrullination altered protease susceptibility of vimentin, thereby generating self-epitopes that are presented to T cells in HLA-DRB1*04:01+ individuals. Using HLA-II tetramers, we observed citrullinated vimentin- and aggrecan-specific CD4 + T cells in the peripheral blood of HLA-DRB1*04:01 +RA-affected and healthy individuals. In RA patients, autoreactive T cell numbers correlated with disease activity and were deficient in regulatory T cells relative to healthy individuals. These findings reshape our understanding of the association between citrullination, the HLA-DRB1locus, and T cell autoreactivity in RA.