Autoantibodies to smooth muscle (SMA) and nuclear components (ANA) arise in the natural course of chronic infection with hepatitis C virus. In view of the growing evidence for 'molecular mimicry' as a mechanism of autoimmunity we investigated whether cross-reactive immune reactions between host smooth muscle/nuclear components and HCV antigens may contribute to the formation of SMA and ANA in chronic HCV infection. Computer-assisted protein database search methods were used to identify three smooth muscle (smoothelin698-717, myosin1035-1054, vimentin69-88) and three nuclear (matrin722-741, histone H2A11-30, replication protein A133-152) host antigens with the highest local sequence similarity to the HCV polyprotein and 20-mer peptides corresponding to these regions were constructed. Sera from 51 children with chronic HCV infection [median age: 8 (2-16); 27 boys], 26 SMA positive and five ANA positive, were tested for reactivity to the synthesized HCV peptides and their human homologues by enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Sera from patients with HBV infection and chronic liver disease of different aetiologies were used as controls. 'Double reactivity' to HCV peptides and smooth muscle/nuclear homologues was associated strongly with HCV infection (P < 0.001 for both). Humoral cross-reactivity was established as the basis for double recognition by competition ELISA. Double-reactivity to smooth muscle and HCV peptide antigens correlated with SMA positivity by indirect immunofluouresence (P = 0.05). Of 15 patients double-reactive to myosin1035-1054 and its HCV homologue, 13 recognized whole myosin by immunoblot. These results suggest that ANA and SMA in chronic HCV infection may arise, at least in part, as a consequence of cross-reactive immune responses to HCV and host smooth muscle/nuclear antigens.