Molecular mimicry is the process by which T cells activated in response to determinants on an infecting microorganism cross-react with self epitopes, leading to an autoimmune disease. Normally, infection of SJL/J mice with the BeAn strain of Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) results in a persistent CNS infection, leading to a chronic progressive, CD4+ T cell-mediated demyelinating disease. Myelin damage is initiated by T cell responses to virus persisting in CNS APCs, and progressive demyelinating disease (50 days postinfection) is perpetuated by myelin epitope-specific CD4+ T cells activated by epitope spreading. We developed an infectious model of molecular mimicry by inserting a sequence encompassing the immunodominant myelin epitope, proteolipid protein (PLP) 139-151, into the coding region of a nonpathogenic TMEV variant. PLP139-TMEV-infected mice developed a rapid onset paralytic inflammatory, demyelinating disease paralleled by the activation of PLP139-151-specific CD4+ Th1 responses within 10-14 days postinfection. The current studies demonstrate that the early onset demyelinating disease induced by PLP139-TMEV is the direct result of autoreactive PLP139-151-specific CD4+ T cell responses. PLP139-151-specific CD4+ T cells from PLP139-TMEV -infected mice transferred demyelinating disease to naive recipients and PLP139-151-specific tolerance before infection prevented clinical disease. Finally, infection with the mimic virus at sites peripheral to the CNS induced early demyelinating disease, suggesting that the PLP139-151-specific CD4+ T cells could be activated in the periphery and traffic to the CNS. Collectively, infection with PLP139-151 mimic encoding TMEV serves as an excellent model for molecular mimicry by inducing pathologic myelin-specific CD4+ T cells via a natural virus infection.