Antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies (ANCA) encompass a heterogeneous group of autoantibodies targeting antigens in neutrophils (PMN), monocytes, and endothelial cells. ANCA are routinely detected by the indirect immunofluorescence technique (IFT) and at least three different patterns of fluorescence can be distinguished which have been assigned the acronyms cANCA, pANCA and aANCA. cANCA is mostly induced by proteinase 3 (PR3) antibodies (PR3-ANCA), and pANCA by myeloperoxidase (MPO) antibodies (MPO-ANCA), while aANCA has unidentified subspecificity. Over the past decade, ANCA have been the subject of extensive investigation. They have proved to be of significant value both as diagnostic tools and for follow-up in several forms of systemic vasculitis (e.g. Wegener's granulomatosis, WG; microscopic polyarteritis, MPA; Churg-Strauss syndrome, CSS) which are now termed 'ANCA-associated vasculitides'. Furthermore, it is suspected that the presence of ANCA is an important factor in the pathogenesis of these disease groups. Data regarding the detection of ANCA and their diagnostic value and role in the pathogenesis of vasculitic disorders will be discussed in this review. Growing evidence points to a pathophysiological and diagnostic relevance of the distribution of the ANCA target antigens PR3 and MPO (presence in the circulation, on cell membranes, and in tissue extracellularly). An autoimmune process has been implicated in the pathogenesis of ANCA-associated vasculitis, but it is uncertain which mechanism underlies the induction of the ANCA-related immunoresponse. In this paper mechanisms such as antigenic cross-reactivity between human PMN proteins and extrinsic antigens by molecular mimicry, idiotypic immunoglobulin regulation, and T-cell reactivity to PR3 and MPO will be discussed.