Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus) is a systemic autoimmune disease characterized by a constellation of varied clinical presentations, although the nearly universal presence of autoantibodies is a salient unifying feature. Ongoing research efforts focus on understanding the complex combination of genetic and environmental factors that lead to SLE in select individuals. Our previous work has demonstrated that years before diagnosis abnormal autoantibody responses are present in the sera of patients who will subsequently develop lupus and, further, that the initial targets of two of these key responses (anti-Sm B' and anti-60 kD Ro alone) have been identified for some patients. Indeed, our results suggest that the first lupus-specific autoantibodies arise from particular antibodies directed against Epstein-Barr virus Nuclear Antigen-1 (EBNA-1) and that infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is an environmental risk factor for lupus. The predicted sequence of events is normal immunity, followed by Epstein- Barr virus infection, the generation of anti-EBNA-1 antibodies, then followed by those particular anti-EBNA-1 antibodies that also bind lupus-specific autoantigens (Sm or Ro), followed by the development of more complex autoimmune responses, and, finally, culminating in clinical disease. Studies from others and those underway suggest that lupus patients have unusual immune responses to Epstein-Barr virus. In aggregate, these results are consistent with an immune response against Epstein-Barr virus being important in at least some patients for the initiation of lupus autoimmunity.