Reactive arthritis (ReA) is believed to be "triggered' by infection with certain bacteria. When the proliferative responses of mononuclear cells (MC) obtained from the synovial fluid (SF) of ReA patients were examined, it was found that they responded maximally to the specific organism responsible for the preceding infection. The response was shown to be due to Class II MHC-restricted T cells by inhibition experiments using cyclosporin A and monoclonal antibodies. Significant SFMC responses to additional organisms associated with ReA were also recorded; since there was no serological evidence of preceding infection by these organisms, this finding suggests that these bacteria share common T cell-recognized antigenic epitopes. The corresponding responses by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were much lower and often barely detectable, whereas their responses to PHA were consistently higher than those of SFMC. These results, combined with evidence that bacterial antigens localize in the joint, indicate that a bacteria-specific, T-cell-mediated response may play a central role in the pathogenesis of ReA.