The primary function of the monomorphic MHC class Ib molecule Qa-1(b) is to present peptides derived from the leader sequences of other MHC class I molecules for recognition by the CD94-NKG2 receptors expressed by NK and T cells. Whereas the mode of peptide presentation by its ortholog HLA-E, and subsequent recognition by CD94-NKG2A, is known, the molecular basis of Qa-1(b) function is unclear. We have assessed the interaction between Qa-1(b) and CD94-NKG2A and shown that they interact with an affinity of 17 muM. Furthermore, we have determined the structure of Qa-1(b) bound to the leader sequence peptide, Qdm (AMAPRTLLL), to a resolution of 1.9 A and compared it with that of HLA-E. The crystal structure provided a basis for understanding the restricted peptide repertoire of Qa-1(b). Whereas the Qa-1(b-AMAPRTLLL) complex was similar to that of HLA-E, significant sequence and structural differences were observed between the respective Ag-binding clefts. However, the conformation of the Qdm peptide bound by Qa-1(b) was very similar to that of peptide bound to HLA-E. Although a number of conserved innate receptors can recognize heterologous ligands from other species, the structural differences between Qa-1(b) and HLA-E manifested in CD94-NKG2A ligand recognition being species specific despite similarities in peptide sequence and conformation. Collectively, our data illustrate the structural homology between Qa-1(b) and HLA-E and provide a structural basis for understanding peptide repertoire selection and the specificity of the interaction of Qa-1(b) with CD94-NKG2 receptors.