Anti-double stranded (dsDNA) antibodies are of considerable diagnostic value and are thought to be involved in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Fluctuations in anti-dsDNA antibody levels are also used as markers for disease activity and exacerbations. In this study we sought to evaluate the anti-dsDNA antibody level in serum samples collected before the onset of SLE diagnosis. A total of 130 SLE patients were identified with stored serum samples available prior to diagnosis within the US Department of Defense serum repository. All 633 sera available from these patients were screened for anti-dsDNA antibodies using an enzyme linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA). Within this cohort 55% of cases had detectable anti-dsDNA antibodies prior to SLE diagnosis. The onset of anti-dsDNA antibodies ranged from 9.3 years before to within the same month as diagnosis (with a mean onset 2.7 years before diagnosis). In order to assess for fluctuations in anti-dsDNA levels relative to diagnosis, cases were selected with at least two positive samples, one within 6 months and a second greater than 6 months prior to diagnosis (n = 26). Seven of these cases also had samples available shortly after diagnosis (< or = 6 months) for comparison. Fifty-eight percent of the 26 cases developed a significant rise in anti-dsDNA antibody levels within 6 months of diagnosis. A significant decline in anti-dsDNA levels ensued after diagnosis (and following treatment with corticosteroids) in all seven cases with samples available. Patients with a significant rise in anti-dsDNA antibodies at diagnosis were more likely to have renal disease than those who did not (66.7% compared to 27.3%, chi2 =3.94, P<0.05). These data suggest that anti-dsDNA antibodies are present in SLE patient sera much earlier than previously suspected. In addition, the data are consistent with increases in anti-dsDNA levels contributing to the onset of clinical illness in some patients with SLE.