Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is a chronic, blistering skin disease characterized in part by deposits of IgA at the dermal-epidermal junction. Eighty-five percent of DH patients have granular IgA deposits and have an associated gluten-sensitive enteropathy (GSE). In contrast, 15% of DH patients have a linear pattern of IgA deposits and no associated intestinal abnormality. Although circulating IgA antibodies against skin are not present in these patients, 40% of DH patients do have IgA-containing circulating immune complexes (IgA-CIC). The role and origin of the cutaneous IgA and the IgA-CIC in patients with DH are unknown; however, the association of GSE with the granular IgA deposits suggests that a mucosal immune response may be important in the pathogenesis of DH. We have characterized the IgA subclass composition of the cutaneous IgA deposits in patients with DH, and have isolated and characterized the IgA-CIC from these patients. Twenty-nine of 29 patients with DH and granular IgA deposits were found to have only IgA1 deposits. Ten of 11 patients with linear IgA deposits also had only IgA1 deposits; one of 11 had IgA2 deposits. Isolated IgA-CIC from the sera of eight patients with DH and granular IgA deposits were found to contain both IgA1 (58% +/- 5, mean percent of total IgA +/- SEM) and IgA2 (42% +/- 5), as were IgA-CIC from two patients with ordinary GSE without cutaneous IgA deposits. The IgA subclass composition of the isolated immune complexes was significantly different from the serum IgA1 and IgA2 composition (serum IgA1 = 76% +/- 6; IgA2 = 24% +/- 5, p less than 0.025, Student's t-test), and suggests that the IgA-CIC may arise from gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Sequential anti-IgA1 absorption of serum which contained IgA-CIC did not remove all the IgA-CIC, suggesting that the complexes circulate as separate IgA1 and IgA2 complexes. The finding of IgA1 alone in the skin of patients with DH suggests that the cutaneous IgA may not arise from GALT, or that IgA1, possibly arising in GALT, is preferentially bound to DH skin. Because IgA-containing CIC which contain both IgA1 and IgA2 were found in the serum of patients with DH and with ordinary GSE, it seems unlikely that IgA-containing CIC are responsible for the cutaneous IgA deposits seen in DH.