Transformation of peripheral blood lymphocytes after exposure to connective tissue antigens was measured in patients with adult (n = 35) and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (n = 34), osteoarthritis (n = 21), ankylosing spondylitis (n = 15), and systemic lupus erythematosus (n = 26) and in control subjects (n = 36). The connective tissue antigens included homologous cartilage-type proteoglycan, cyanogen bromide-derived peptides of type I, II, and III collagens, and type I and II helical collagens. Lymphocyte transformation was not detected in the osteoarthritic and control groups, with one exception. Sensitization to at least one connective tissue antigen was detected in approximately one-third of the rheumatoid arthritic and lupus patients and in one-quarter of the juvenile rheumatoid patients. In ankylosing spondylitis, positive responses occurred to proteoglycan in 20% of patients tested but never to collagens or peptides. Sensitivity to proteoglycan was detected only in ankylosing spondylitis except for one patient with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. In patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and both forms of rheumatoid arthritis, lymphocyte transformation was usually more frequently detected to peptides than to the helical collagens. In adult rheumatoid arthritis, type II peptides elicited an elevated number of responses (14%) as did type I (9%) and III (8%) peptides to lesser degrees. Responses to type I (4%) and II (4%) helical collagens were infrequent. Rheumatoid arthritic patients usually exhibited sensitivity to only one antigen and lymphocyte transformation was often detected when the arthritis was improving. In juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, lymphocyte transformation was detected to peptides of type I (16%), II (9%), and III (29%) collagens and to helical type I (12%) and II (8%) collagens. In systemic lupus erythematosus, sensitization was detected to peptides of type I (13%), II (20%), and III (14%) collagens and to helical type I collagen (18%) but not type II collagen. Simultaneous sensitivity to several antigens often occurred in both systemic lupus erythematosus and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Examination of individual patients in all three rheumatic disease groups revealed that immune sensitivity developed to collagen peptides rather than to the helical molecules, particularly in the case of type II collagen. Thus, some patients with inflammatory arthritis exhibit immune responses to connective tissue components which are, as a group, characteristic for each type of arthritis. These responses, which were not obviously associated with disease activity, may develop as a result of inflammation or trauma which destroys connective tissue and exposes molecules, in either a native or degraded state, to cells of the immune system. Expression of sensitivity to these tissue antigens may contribute to the chronicity of the inflammatory arthritides.