Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease associated with HLA-DRbeta1 alleles which contain the QKRAA amino acid sequence in their third hypervariable region(s). The QKRAA sequence is also expressed by several human pathogens. We have shown previously that an Escherichia coli peptide encompassing QKRAA is a target of immune responses in RA patients. Here we address two questions: first, whether QKRAA may function as an "immunological cassette" with similar, RA-associated, immunogenic properties when expressed by other common human pathogens; and second, what is the influence of genetic background in the generation of these responses. We find that early RA patients have enhanced humoral and cellular immune responses to Epstein-Barr virus and Brucella ovis and Lactobacillus lactis antigens which contain the QKRAA sequence. These results suggest that the QKRAA sequence is an antigenic epitope on several different microbial proteins, and that RA patients recognize the immunological cassette on different backgrounds. ANOVA of immune responses to "shared epitope" antigens in monozygotic twin couples shows that, despite significantly elevated responses in affected individuals, a similarity between pairs is retained, thus suggesting a role played either by hereditary or shared environmental factors in the genesis or maintenance of these responses.