Disease activity in systemic lupus erythematosus is closely associated with the appearance of immunoglobulin (Ig)G antibody to native DNA in both humans and mice. Like normal antibody responses, the anti-DNA autoantibody first appears as IgM and then switches to IgG. Structural studies of IgG anti-DNA suggest that these antibodies are the products of clonally selected, specifically stimulated B cells. The origins of the IgM anti-DNA have been less clear. To determine whether the earlier appearing IgM anti-DNA antibody in autoimmune mice also derives from clonally selected, specifically stimulated B cells or B cells activated by nonselective, polyclonal stimuli, we have analyzed the molecular and serological characteristics of a large number of monoclonal IgM anti-DNA antibodies from autoimmune (NZB x NZW)F1 mice. We have also analyzed IgM and IgG anti-DNA hybridomas obtained from the same individual mice to determine how the later-appearing IgG autoantibody may be related to the earlier-appearing IgM autoantibody within an individual mouse. The results demonstrate that: (a) IgM anti-DNA, like IgG, has the characteristics of a specifically stimulated antibody; (b) IgM and IgG anti-DNA antibodies have similar variable region structures and within individual mice may be produced by B cells derived from the same clonal precursors; (c) recurrent germline and somatically derived VH and VL structures may influence the specificity of anti-DNA monoclonal antibody for denatured vs. native DNA; and (d) the results provide a structural explanation for the selective development of IgG antibody to native DNA as autoimmunity to DNA progresses in (NZB x NZW)F1 mice.