We have taken several approaches to investigate the capacity of the secretory pathway to liberate major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I-restricted antigenic peptides from precursor porypeptides. Cells lacking the peptide transporter (TAP) are unable to deliver peptides from cytosolic antigens to class I molecules. TAP can be bypassed by targeting peptides directly to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) using NH2-terminal signal sequences. This results in the generation of enormous numbers of MHC class I complexes (50,000 peptides/cell), and recombinant vaccinia viruses expressing such peptides are highly immunogenic. In contrast to signal sequence-targeted peptides, peptides are liberated very inefficiently from internal locations in ER-targeted full-length proteins, indicating that the secretory pathway has a limited capacity for generating antigenic peptides from most polypeptide contexts. We have, however, identified a location in proteins from which peptides can be liberated in numerous contexts in the secretory pathway. Placing a number of different peptides at the COOH termini of a secreted protein and two proteins with type II membrane anchors resulted in their TAP-independent presentation. These findings demonstrate that the secretory compartment possesses proteases able to liberate COOH-terminal antigenic peptides from virtually any context, entirely consistent with a role for these proteases in the processing of TAP-transported antigenic peptide precursors.