To characterize the physicochemical properties of the mesangial IgA in primary IgA nephropathy, acid-eluates from percutaneous renal biopsies of 20 patients were examined. The acid-eluates were obtained from 1287 +/- 498 glomerular sections. The IgA content (mean 15 +/- 10 ng) represented 0.4% of the total eluted proteins. To analyze the molecular weight and the charge of eluted IgA, 11 eluates were subjected to high pressure liquid chromatography (at pH 6.8 and/or pH 3.5) and five eluates to isoelectric focusing on agarose. IgA was detected in the fractions by an IgA-RIA. Comparison of the elution profiles at different pH showed a statistically significant decrease of the excluded IgA peak (greater than or equal to 1,000,000 daltons), and a significant increase of polymeric IgA peaks (1,000,000-320,000 and 320,000 daltons) in acidic chromatography, as compared to non-dissociating conditions. Under acidic conditions, polymeric IgA represent 64% of total eluted IgA. Secretory component binding to polymeric IgA was demonstrated in four out of eight eluates tested. The isoelectric point (pI) of eluted IgA ranged from 4.5 to 5.6, contrasting with the broader and more neutral pI of normal serum IgA (4.5 to 6.8). This study shows that the multimeric nature of IgA, the formation of IgA complexes, and the anionic charge of IgA are likely to be involved in the mesangial IgA deposition in idiopathic IgA nephropathy.