La is an autoimmune RNA-binding protein of 47 kDa that plays a role in the transcription of RNA polymerase III. Both genomic and complementary DNAs were isolated that encompass the coding sequence of the human La molecule. The genomic clones encompass 11 exons and a putative G/C-rich promoter upstream of the mRNA start site. The cDNA sequence encodes a protein of 408 amino acids and can be divided into two structural domains based upon amino acid content and protease sensitivity. An unusually long stretch of 130 amino acids, much of which was predicted to form a stable alpha-helix, was found near the middle of the protein between the two domains. A ribonucleoprotein (RNP) consensus sequence was found just NH2-terminal to the long alpha-helix. The RNP consensus sequence is split into two exons by the fifth intron. Expression of three separate fragments of the La protein in Escherichia coli showed that a strongly autoimmune-reactive portion resides in the fragment containing the RNP consensus sequence and most of the long alpha-helical core. Autoantibodies from La patients also reacted with the terminal regions of the protein, but the extent of reactivity varied among patients. Differences in reactivity of autoantibodies to each portion of La protein may reflect an evolution of recognition of different epitopes during the development of the autoimmune response. These findings support an antigen-driven mechanism for autoimmune reactivity.