Grave's disease (GD) is a common disorder characterized by the presence of autoantibodies to the thyrotropin receptor. In the past, the exceedingly low expression of the thyrotropin receptor on thyrocytes has not allowed its purification in quantities sufficient to investigate the establishment of an animal model for this disease. In this study, we have purified the 398-amino acid, extracellular region of the human thyrotropin receptor (TSH-R.E) from insect cells using recombinant baculovirus, and explored its immunopathogenic properties in H-2b,d,q,k,s strains of mice. The receptor preparation was highly immunogenic since it elicited strong specific proliferative T cell responses as well as IgG responses in all strains tested. In addition, hyperimmunization with TSH-R.E induced (i) serum antibodies that blocked the binding of 125I-TSH to its receptor, a common feature of GD autoantibodies; and (ii) IgG that reacted with a synthetic peptide (residues 32-54) from the N-terminus of the receptor, a region implicated in the binding of thyroid stimulating antibodies. In SJL animals only, a weak antibody response to two other thyroid antigens, thyroglobulin and thyroid peroxidase, was also observed. The presence of these antibodies, however, was not accompanied by a detectable alteration in thyroid function as assessed by the measurement of serum TSH, T4 and iodine levels. Also mononuclear infiltration of the thyroid gland or morphological changes compatible with an activation state of thyrocytes were not apparent in TSH-R-challenged mice. In contrast, mice treated with the anti-oxidant aminotriazole showed a dramatic increase in serum TSH levels and an activated follicular epithelium. These data demonstrate that a highly immunogenic TSH-R.E in mice does not necessarily provide a proper stimulus for the induction of a hyper- or hypothyroid status as defined by hormonal or histological criteria. Main reasons for the inability to induce receptor-specific antibodies that affect thyroid function such as those generated in GD are likely to be the inappropriate folding of the recombinant extracellular domain of the receptor, or the xenogeneic nature of the autoantigen.