Anti-DNA autoantibodies are thought to play a major role in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus. However, the mechanism(s) by which they participate in tissue and organ damage is not well understood. It has been suggested that these antibodies combine with DNA or DNA-histone complexes to produce circulating immune complexes which may deposit in various tissues. Alternatively, anti-DNA autoantibodies could interact directly with tissue components by way of immunological cross-reaction. In this study we have used a panel of mouse monoclonal autoantibodies with anti-nuclear specificity and measured their binding to membrane proteins of several tissues and cell lines. We show that the anti-DNA antibodies, but not anti-RNA or anti-histone antibodies bind to membrane proteins of molecular weights 102, 80, 42, 35 and 31 kDa, which are expressed in different combinations on several cell types. The binding of anti-DNA antibodies to these cell surface proteins was not affected by DNase treatment of the target cells, was increased by DNase treatment of the antibody preparations and was completely inhibited by DNA, indicating a true cross-reaction and not an indirect interaction of antibody and membrane proteins through a DNA bridge. Our results suggest that direct binding of anti-DNA autoantibodies to cell surface membrane proteins may play an important role in the induction of the pleomorphic tissue damage in systemic lupus erythematosus.