DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK) consists of a DNA binding subunit (Ku autoantigen), and a catalytic subunit (DNA-PKcs). In the present study, human autoantibodies that recognize novel antigenic determinants of DNA-PK were identified. One type of autoantibody stabilized the interaction of DNA-PKcs with Ku and recognized the DNA-PKcs -Ku complex, but not bio-chemically purified DNA-PKcs. Another type recognized purified DNA-PKcs. Autoantibodies to Ku (p70/p80 heterodimer), 'stabilizing' antibodies, and antibodies to DNA-PKcs comprise a linked autoantibody set, since antibodies recognizing purified DNA-PKcs were strongly associated with stabilizing antibodies, whereas stabilizing antibodies were strongly associated with anti-Ku. This hierarchical pattern of autoantibodies specific for components of DNA-PK (anti-Ku > stabilizing antibodies > anti-DNA-PKcs) may have implications for the pathogenesis of autoimmunity to DNA-PK and other chromatin particles. The data raise the possibility that altered antigen processing and/or stabilization of the DNA-PKcs-Ku complex due to autoantibody binding could play a role in spreading autoimmunity from Ku to the weakly associated antigen DNA-PKcs.