An acetone-precipitable fraction of Mycobacterium tuberculosis cross-reacts with human cartilage. Immune responses to this antigen were assessed in 34 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, 16 patients with degenerative joint disease, and 15 healthy controls. The RA patients differed from the other two groups in having more pronounced T lymphocyte responses to the antigen; their serum antibody levels were not higher. The responses of RA patients varied with duration of disease. In the first year (7 patients) T lymphocyte reactivity was increased in the synovial exudates of affected joints but not in peripheral blood, whereas the 19 with disease of 1-10 years' duration showed high reactivity in peripheral blood; in the 8 with disease for more than 10 years, lymphocyte reactivity did not differ from that in the patients with degenerative joint disease or the healthy controls. The observation that the three groups did not differ in their responses to streptococci and a T-cell mitogen indicates that reactivity of the RA patients to the mycobacterial fraction was specific. These results raise the possibility that bacterial antigens cross-reactive with cartilage proteoglycans may be relevant to the pathogenesis of RA.