The major cellular antigens recognized by autoantibodies in SLE and other systemic autoimmune diseases have been identified and characterized over the past 25 years. The pioneering studies of Eng Tan demonstrate the importance of autoantibodies as diagnostic markers. However, why certain autoantibodies, such as anti-Sm, are pathognomonic of SLE, while others are markers of other autoimmune disease subsets, remains unanswered. This central question continues to drive much current research into the pathogenesis of SLE. Features of the autoantigens recognized by autoantibodies may provide important clues to the causes of lupus. Most autoantigens in systemic autoimmunity are multicomponent nucleoprotein complexes. These particles are encountered by the immune system as units, resulting in the tandem production of autoantibodies recognizing several components of the same complex. However, the intermolecular-intrastructural spreading of autoimmunity is regulated by mechanisms that at present are defined poorly. Also unexplained is the observation that the antigenic determinants recognized by autoantibodies are restricted and frequently correspond to active sites or functional domains. Analysis of experimental models of autoimmunity suggests that altering the structure of autoantigens, due to abnormal protein-protein interactions, hapten binding, altered degradation, or other mechanisms, could help to explain both the restricted patterns of autoantibody spreading and the selective targeting of antigenic sites. This may be a worthwhile area for further investigation of the pathogenesis of systemic autoimmune diseases.