Patients with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis frequently have abnormal immune responses to the hsp65 class of bacterial heat shock proteins. However, lymphocytes from children with other inflammatory diseases may also recognize hsp65, and the role of these antigens in juvenile rheumatoid arthritis remains controversial. We have studied humoral and cellular immune responses to a distinct, recently described bacterial heat shock protein, designated dnaJ. The Escherichia coli dnaJ gene was cloned and expressed, and the purified recombinant protein was used as an antigen. Neither normal children nor children with various chronic inflammatory diseases had lymphocyte proliferative responses to recombinant dnaJ. However, lymphocytes from patients with polyarticular, pauciarticular, and systemic manifestations of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis responded strongly to the antigen. Cellular immune responses to dnaJ were higher in synovial fluid than in blood and higher in children with active disease than in children in remission. These data show that increased immune reactivity to dnaJ is characteristic of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and that the magnitude of the immune response is linked to disease activity. The results suggest that an abnormal immune response to antigens on commensal gut bacteria may contribute to the generation of chronic inflammation in juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.