To determine if the hepatitis viruses are important etiologic factors in autoimmune hepatitis, the clinical, immunoserologic, virologic and HLA phenotypes of 105 of the latter patients were assessed prospectively and compared to 45 patients with chronic viral hepatitis. Patients with autoimmune hepatitis were more often women with higher serum aspartate aminotransferase and immunoglobulin levels than patients with viral disease. Only eight patients (8%) were seropositive for anti-HBc and anti-HBs (four patients) or anti-HCV (four patients) and none with anti-HCV were reactive by second generation immunoassay or recombinant immunoblot assay. Smooth muscle (90 vs. 22%, P < 0.001) and antinuclear (70 vs. 22%, P < 0.001) antibodies were more common in patients with autoimmune hepatitis and the titers more frequently exceeded 1:80 (84 vs. 11%, P < 0.0001). Patients with autoimmune hepatitis were more often positive for HLA B8 (48 vs. 20%, P < 0.01) and DR3 (49 vs. 20%, P < 0.003) and they more frequently had the HLA A1-B8-DR3 phenotype (38 vs. 10%, P < 0.003). Only one of the 120 patients tested for anti-LKM1 was seropositive. We conclude that in an American referral population autoimmune hepatitis usually lacks virologic markers and has a distinctive clinical, immunoserologic and HLA phenotype. Hepatitis viruses are not important immunogenic stimuli for non-organ specific antibodies and they are unlikely to be important causes of this form of autoimmune hepatitis.