A commonly held postulate regarding the etiology of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is that of antigenic mimicry. Recent interest has focused on the mycobacterial 65-kDa heat-shock protein (hsp) as a putative causal agent. The 65-kDa hsp has over 40% sequence homology with the human hsp 60, and elevated synovial T cell responses to both antigens have been demonstrated in RA and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis patients. Such T cells should, therefore, be specific for shared epitopes on the two antigens. To investigate this, we screened synovial fluid mononuclear cells from two early RA patients with peptides of the 65-kDa hsp which have the greatest homology with the human hsp 60. We also raised a panel of T cell clones from one of the patients with the 65-kDa hsp. The synovial T cell population from both patients and one of the T cell clones recognized a peptide representing the amino-acid sequence 241-255. This clone also responded to the peptide of the equivalent human sequence, and was restricted by HLA-DQ. A second T cell clone recognized an adjacent epitope (amino acid sequence 251-265) which is also highly homologous with the human sequence, but this clone was restricted by HLA-DR. The clones utilized different V beta gene segments but the same D beta and J beta gene elements, and both exhibited specific cytotoxicity against autologous antigen-pulsed macrophages. Our findings, therefore, do not disagree with the postulate that autoimmune disease could possibly be triggered by bacterial epitopes with homology to self protein. However, it is also noted that there are alternative interpretations of this data.