Autoantibodies play a key role in diagnostic laboratories as markers of autoimmune diseases. In addition to their role as markers they mediate diverse effects in vivo. Autoantibodies with protective effect have been described. Natural protective IgM autoantibodies against tumour-antigens of malignant cells or their precursors may contribute to increased survival rates of carcinoma patients. In a mouse model of systemic lupus erythematosus it has been shown that anti-dsDNA IgM autoantibodies protect from glomerular damage. In contrast, a direct pathogenic role of autoantibodies has been well established e.g. in myasthenia gravis or in Goodpasture syndrome. Similarly autoantibodies against SSA Ro52 are detrimental in neonatal lupus erythematosus with congenital heart block. Moreover, putatively protective autoantibodies may become pathogenic during the course of the disease such as the onconeuronal autoantibodies whose pathogenicity depends on their compartmentalisation. In patients with paraneoplastic syndromes tumour cells express proteins that are also naturally present in the brain. Anti-tumour autoantibodies which temporarily suppress tumour growth can provoke an autoimmune attack on neurons once having crossed the blood-brain barrier and cause specific neurological symptoms. Only a restricted number of autoantibodies are useful follow-up markers for the effectiveness of treatment in autoimmune diseases. Certain autoantibodies hold prognostic value and appear years or even decades before the diagnosis of disease such as the antimitochondrial antibodies in primary biliary cirrhosis or anti-citrullinated protein (CCP)-antibodies in rheumatoid arthritis. It is crucial to know whether the autoantibodies in question recognise linear or conformational epitopes in order to choose the appropriate detection methods. Indirect immunofluorescence microscopy remains a very useful tool for confirmation of results of commercially available immunoassays and for detection of special and rare autoantibodies that otherwise often remain undetected. Standardisation of autoimmune diagnostics is still underway and requires joint efforts by laboratories, clinicians and industry.