Antibodies to dsDNA represent a classification criterion for systemic lupus erythematosus. Subpopulations of these antibodies are involved in lupus nephritis. No known marker separates nephritogenic from non-nephritogenic anti-dsDNA antibodies. It is not clear whether specificity for glomerular target antigens or intrinsic antibody-affinity for dsDNA or nucleosomes is a critical parameter. Furthermore, it is still controversial whether glomerular target antigen(s) is constituted by nucleosomes or by non-nucleosomal glomerular structures. Previously, we have demonstrated that antibodies eluted from murine nephritic kidneys recognize nucleosomes, but not other glomerular antigens. In this study, we determined the structures that bind nephritogenic autoantibodies in vivo by transmission electron microscopy, immune electron microscopy, and colocalization immune electron microscopy using experimental antibodies to dsDNA, to histones and transcription factors, or to laminin. The data obtained are consistent and point at glomerular basement membrane-associated nucleosomes as target structures for the nephritogenic autoantibodies. Terminal deoxynucleotidyl-transferase-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling or caspase-3 assays demonstrate that lupus nephritis is linked to intraglomerular cell apoptosis. The data suggest that nucleosomes are released by apoptosis and associate with glomerulus basement membranes, which may then be targeted by pathogenic anti-nucleosome antibodies. Thus, apoptotic nucleosomes may represent both inducer and target structures for nephritogenic autoantibodies in systemic lupus erythematosus.