Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) represents the outgrowth of a CD5(+) B cell. Its etiology is unknown. The structure of membrane Ig on CLL cells of unrelated patients can be remarkably similar. Therefore, antigen binding and stimulation could contribute to clonal selection and expansion as well as disease promotion. Initial studies suggest that CLL mAbs bind autoantigens. Since apoptosis can make autoantigens accessible for recognition by antibodies, and also create neo-epitopes by chemical modifications occurring naturally during this process, we sought to determine if CLL mAbs recognize autoantigens associated with apoptosis. In general, ~60% of CLL mAbs bound the surfaces of apoptotic cells, were polyreactive, and expressed unmutated IGHV. mAbs recognized two types of antigens: native molecules located within healthy cells, which relocated to the external cell surface during apoptosis; and/or neoantigens, generated by oxidation during the apoptotic process. Some of the latter epitopes are similar to those on bacteria and other microbes. Although most of the reactive mAbs were not mutated, the use of unmutated IGHV did not bestow autoreactivity automatically, since several such mAbs were not reactive. Particular IGHV and IGHV/D/J rearrangements contributed to autoantigen binding, although the presence and degree of reactivity varied based on specific structural elements. Thus, clonal expansion in CLL may be stimulated by autoantigens occurring naturally during apoptosis. These data suggest that CLL may derive from normal B cells whose function is to remove cellular debris, and also to provide a first line of defense against pathogens.