Approximately 20% of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and with anti-Sm autoantibodies synthesize autoantibodies, called anti-rRNP, to components of the ribosome. We found that anti-rRNP sera reacted predominantly with three ribosomal phosphoproteins of approximate Mr = 38,000, 16,000 and 15,000, both by immunoprecipitation and by immunoblotting. The human autoantibodies cross-reacted with similar antigens present in rodent, brine shrimp, and yeast cells but reacted weakly if at all with proteins of bacteria. Thus the human autoantibodies recognize epitopes that are widely conserved in evolution. Purified ribosomal proteins together with specific rabbit antisera were used to identify the two smaller rRNP antigens as the acidic phosphoproteins of the large ribosomal subunit, designated P1/P2(L40/L41) (rat), eL7/eL12 (Artemia, brine shrimp), and A1/A2 (yeast). These proteins function in the elongation step of protein synthesis in an analogous fashion to the L7/L12 ribosomal proteins of E. coli. The 38,000-dalton rRNP antigen corresponds to a nonacidic protein also associated with the large ribosomal subunit. The human autoantibodies appear to have a specificity similar to that of a previously described mouse monoclonal antibody obtained from mice injected with heterologous (chick) ribosomes, suggesting that both the human polyclonal autoantibodies and the mouse monoclonal recognize a class of epitope(s) that is common in all three ribosomal proteins. In addition, we found that many of the anti-ribosomal sera contained a further class of autoantibodies reactive with naked RNA. These may be similar to the anti-RNA antibodies previously described in both humans and mice with autoimmune disease.