The cellular mechanisms governing the expression of mononuclear cell vasculitis are poorly understood. For determination of the precise sequence of events in the development of vasculitis in autoimmune MRL/lpr mice, histologic sections from 4-20-week-old mice were evaluated with a panel of cytochemical and immunohistochemical stains. The results show that vascular disease in MRL/lpr mice develops as follows: Thy 1+, Ly 1+, L3T4- T cells assemble around predominantly small-to-medium muscular arteries at approximately 8 weeks of age. At 12 weeks of age, an adventitial inflammatory focus forms, composed of large "reactive" mononuclear inflammatory cells adjacent to hypertrophied vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs). Blastic Thy 1+, Ly 1+, L3T4- T cells subsequently infiltrate the tunica media, and selective VSMC karyolysis results. Occasional cytotoxic/suppressor T cells, macrophages, and possibly NK cells are noted primarily distal to the infiltration site. The outer zone of the inflammatory infiltrate is composed of mature B cells and occasional B-cell precursors. These findings suggest that cellular constituents of the immune response mediate mononuclear cell vasculitis in MRL/lpr mice.