Anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibodies have been found in patients with systemic arteritis and glomerulonephritis. We studied the disease distribution and antigen specificity of these autoantibodies. Anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibodies were identified by indirect immunofluorescence microscopy in 27 of 35 patients with idiopathic necrotizing and crescentic glomerulonephritis, in whom the manifestations of disease ranged from injury limited to the kidney to systemic arteritis. The incidence and titers of the autoantibodies did not differ between patients with disease limited to the kidney and those with systemic disease. Anti-neutrophil immunostaining was detected in 5 of 11 patients with lupus nephritis, 4 of 71 patients with other renal diseases, and none of 50 normal controls. This distribution of autoantibodies was confirmed by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) using neutrophil lysate as antigen. According to ELISA, anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibodies were found to be specific for constituents of primary granules. Two types of autoantibodies were identified; one with reactivity with myeloperoxidase on ELISA produced an artifactual perinuclear immunostaining of alcohol-fixed neutrophils, and another with no reactivity with myeloperoxidase on ELISA produced diffuse cytoplasmic immunostaining. The presence of the same serologic marker in patients with kidney-limited and arteritis-associated necrotizing and crescentic glomerulonephritis, including Wegener's granulomatosis and polyarteritis nodosa, suggests that these clinically diverse diseases may have a similar pathogenesis, initiated by autoantibody-mediated activation of neutrophils.