Antigens of Mycobacterium tuberculosis found in the supernatant of heat-treated cultures were characterized in order to explore whether antigens from this source could be used for the development of a serological test. Culture supernatants and sonicates of 12, 25 and 39 d cultures were analysed by SDS-PAGE. In culture supernatant, major protein bands of 65, 24, and 12 kDa were visible after Coomassie brilliant blue staining. Using murine monoclonal antibodies in Western blots, a pattern of protein bands distinct from that of the corresponding M. tuberculosis sonicates was found in all the culture supernatants. Gel permeation chromatography, in the presence of SDS, was used to separate the major protein bands in the culture supernatant. In ELISA, sera from 20 of 26 patients with tuberculosis reacted with fractions containing mainly 24 kDa or 12 kDa proteins, whereas none of the control sera reacted. In Western blots, each patient serum had its own characteristic banding pattern with culture supernatant, but all the sera from tuberculosis patients and control subjects reacted with protein bands of 65, 61, 58, 30 and 24 kDa. The 12 kDa protein was recognized only by sera from patients with tuberculosis in both Western blots and ELISA. This suggests that different kinds of epitopes on proteins of M. tuberculosis are detected by human antibodies in Western blots and ELISA. We assume that epitopes recognized in Western blots by patients with tuberculosis and control subjects are ubiquitous and are also present on normal commensal bacteria. Epitopes recognized by only some patients with tuberculosis in Western blots may be linear and M. tuberculosis specific. Epitopes recognized by tuberculosis patients but by none of the control subjects in ELISA may be conformation related and M. tuberculosis specific. The major protein bands found in supernatants of heat-treated cultures, 24 and 12 kDa, possess epitopes that may be M. tuberculosis specific and are potentially valuable for the development of a serological test.