In reactive arthritis (ReA) there is specific proliferation of synovial fluid (SF) mononuclear cells (MNC) to the triggering bacterial antigen; comparatively little or no response is seen in peripheral blood (PB). To investigate the mechanism of this elevated local immune response, we examined patients with typical ReA who showed an enhanced antigen-specific synovial immune response in bulk culture. Using separated fractions of T cells and antigen-presenting cells (APC) from PB and SF we showed that the synovial T cells rather than SF APC are responsible for the specific proliferation. By limiting dilution analysis, the frequency of T cells responding to the specific antigen was found to be significantly increased compared with the frequency of irrelevant antigen-specific T cells. Furthermore, the frequency of T cells responding to the specific antigen was higher in SF (between 1/619 and 1/4846, mean 1/2389) than in PB (between 1/1286 and 1/16,279, mean 1/7350). We conclude that the specific synovial cellular immune response in ReA is mainly due to an expansion of antigen-specific T cells within the joint. However, the non-specific hyper-reactivity of SF T cells and differences between SF and PB APC may make a more minor contribution.