Spreading of the immune response is a common theme in organ-specific and systemic autoimmune diseases. We evaluated whether some of the mixed antinuclear antibody patterns characteristic of systemic autoimmunity might be the result of determinant spreading from a single initiating event. Immunisation of healthy mice with individual protein components of the La/Ro ribonucleoprotein (RNP) targeted in systemic lupus erythematosus and primary Sjögren's syndrome induced autoantibodies recognising Ro60 (SS-A), Ro52 (SS-A) and La (SS-B) and in some cases the molecular chaperones calreticulin and Grp78. The endogenous antigen(s) driving determinant spreading might be derived from physiological apoptosis which could explain the involvement of some chaperone proteins in the autoimmune response. Diversified anti-La/Ro antibody responses were initiated by challenge with a single subdominant T epitope of La even though some self epitopes of La were efficiently tolerised. The pattern of autoantibody responses in primary Sjögren's syndrome was strongly influenced by HLA class II phenotype which we speculate controls activation of T cells recognising defined peptides from the La/Ro RNP. In this way, HLA class II alleles may be critical in influencing initiation and spreading of systemic autoimmune reactions. Molecular mimicry of such determinants by exogenous agents might readily initiate spreading of an autoimmune response in genetically susceptible hosts.