To delineate accurately the IgG subclass distribution of thyroid auto-antibodies, sera from nine patients with Hashimoto's thyroiditis were fractionated into IgG subclasses by complete depletion of the other IgG subclasses on affinity columns. All IgG subclass fractions contained thyroglobulin and microsomal (or thyroid peroxidase) antibody activity, although when compared to the total serum concentrations of IgG subclasses, IgG4 antibodies were overrepresented. However, in contrast to recent studies, this particular subclass never predominated--IgG4 antibody levels being exceeded by those of the IgG1 and IgG2 subclasses; it seems likely that these differences relate to varying sensitivity for different subclasses in previously used assay methods. This pattern of subclass activity differed from that of tetanus toxoid antibodies, which were found in six subjects. There was no light chain restriction within any subclass, showing that the overproduction of IgG4 thyroid antibodies is not of monoclonal origin. The functional affinity of subclasses for both thyroid antigens varied between patients, but IgG2 subclass fractions showed the highest functional affinity in the majority of samples. We also found that IgG2 subclass thyroid antibodies were ineffective in eliciting antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity, as distinct from the other three subclasses. Our results show that thyroid antibodies are less restricted in their IgG subclass distribution and patients are less heterogeneous than previously described. Moreover, IgG2 thyroid antibodies are quantitatively important and differ in relative functional affinity and effector function from IgG1 and IgG4 thyroid antibodies.