The identity of the major surface antigens of Porphyromonas gingivalis was investigated. Outer membranes of P. gingivalis strains W83, W50, 381 and NCTC 11843 were prepared following inactivation of the trypsin-like enzyme activity. Three proteins, molecular weight 115, 55 and 40 kDa, were major components of the outer membranes of strains W83 and W50 and were also present in strains 381 and NCTC 11834. Two proteins, 55 and 47 kDa, were released from the cells during the sonication step of the outer membrane preparation procedure. Immunoblots using preparations of P. gingivalis W83 and serum from a case-control study of adult periodontitis demonstrated higher mean antibody reactivity in the case population to all the major proteins except for the 115 kDa outer membrane protein, which was recognized equally well by both populations. We conclude that the 55, 47 and 40 kDa proteins are important surface antigens of P. gingivalis. Characterization of the structure and function of these components should lead to an improved understanding of the host-parasite interactions in adult periodontitis.