The three-dimensional structure of the complex between a T cell receptor (TCR) β chain (mouse Vβ8.2Jβ2.1Cβ1) and the superantigen (SAG) staphylococcal enterotoxin C3 (SEC3) has been recently determined to 3.5 Å resolution. To evaluate the actual contribution of individual SAG residues to stabilizing the β-SEC3 complex, as well as to investigate the relationship between the affinity of SAGs for TCR and MHC and their ability to activate T cells, we measured the binding of a set of SEC3 and staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) mutants to soluble recombinant TCR β chain and to the human MHC class II molecule HLA-DR1. Affinities were determined by sedimentation equilibrium and/or surface plasmon detection, while mitogenic potency was assessed using T cells from rearrangement-deficient TCR transgenic mice. We show that there is a clear and simple relationship between the affinity of SAGs for the TCR and their biological activity: the tighter the binding of a particular mutant of SEC3 or SEB to the TCR β chain, the greater its ability to stimulate T cells. We also find that there is an interplay between TCR-SAG and SAG-MHC interactions in determining mitogenic potency, such that a small increase in the affinity of a SAG for MHC can overcome a large decrease in the SAG's affinity for the TCR. Finally, we observe that those SEC3 residues that make the greatest energetic contribution to stabilizing the β-SEC3 complex ("hot spot" residues) are strictly conserved among enterotoxins reactive with mouse Vβ8.2, thereby providing a basis for understanding why SAGs having other residues at these positions show different Vβ-binding specificities.