Both free and hidden natural antibodies to DNA or cardiolipin were obtained from immunoglobulins of a normal donor. The free antibodies reacting with DNA or cardiolipin were isolated by means of affinity chromatography. Antibodies occurring in an hidden state were disengaged from the depleted immunoglobulins by ion-exchange chromatography and were then affinity-isolated on DNA or cardiolipin sorbents. We used flow cytometry to study the ability of free and hidden antibodies to bind to rat thymocytes. Simultaneously, plasma membrane integrity was tested by propidium iodide (PI) exclusion. The hidden antibodies reacted with 65.2 +/- 10.9% of the thymocytes and caused a fast plasma membrane disruption. Cells (28.7 +/- 7.1%) were stained with PI after incubation with the hidden antibodies for 1 h. The free antibodies bound to a very small fraction of the thymocytes and did not evoke death as compared to control without antibodies. The possible reason for the observed effects is difference in reactivity of the free and hidden antibodies to phospholipids. While free antibodies reacted preferentially with phosphotidylcholine, hidden antibodies reacted with cardiolipin and phosphotidylserine.