A number of studies have found increased levels of antibodies to human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) in autoimmune rheumatic diseases. It is not clear whether this immune response is driven by the HERV itself or by cross-reactions with an exogenous virus or an autoantigen. To address this question, we examined the antibody response to the Env protein of two closely related members of the HERV-K family, HERV-K10 and IDDMK1,222. By immunoblotting of recombinant proteins, antibodies were found in 32-47% of 84 sera from patients with autoimmune rheumatic disease, and 29% of 35 normal controls. Epitope mapping with overlapping 15mers identified multiple reactive peptides on both antigens, with one (GKTCPKEIPKGSKNT) containing immunodominant epitope(s). By ELISA, the median titre of antibody to this peptide was significantly increased in 39 patients with SLE compared to 39 healthy controls and 86 patients with other rheumatic diseases (P < 0.003). We have shown that there is a high frequency of IgG antibodies to HERV-K env sequences in human sera, both in health and autoimmune rheumatic disease, and that the response is to multiple epitopes. This supports the hypothesis that the autoimmune response to HERV-K is antigen-driven and may be an early stage in the chain of events that leads to tolerance breakdown to other autoantigens.