Antibodies in serum from some patients with rheumatoid arthritis, recognize bovine albumin present in the milk, as determined by immunoprecipitation analysis from 125I-milk extracts. This antigen was also immunoprecipitated from bovine sera. These and ELISA studies showed that BSA is preferentially recognized over other proteins present in the milk. Panel studies demonstrated that although the average reactivity for BSA was high, only one third of the sera tested displayed a reactivity above the mean. The possibility of a molecular mimicry mechanism in RA between this food antigen and other human antigens was investigated. A sequence alignment analysis showed that the residues 141-157 of bovine albumin significantly differed from the corresponding fragment of human albumin, but were highly homologous with human collagen type I, C1q and vitamin D binding protein. In support of the immunogenicity of this fragment, we found that representative RA sera displayed a specific reactivity for a synthetic peptide containing the BSA residues responsible for the homology. Furthermore, most of the epitopes recognized on BSA by the RA sera seem to be conformationally dependent as heat denaturation or reduction followed by alkylation lead to a diminished recognition.