Three cell lymphocyte antigens of m.w. 55,000, 70,000, and 105,000 to 110,000 were identified by Western blotting as targets of IgM autoantibodies in serum from a group of 49 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus. The 55- and 70-kDa antigens were well expressed on unstimulated peripheral T cells, whereas the 105- to 110-kDa target was demonstrable only on mitogen-activated T cells and lymphoblastoid T cell lines. Localization of these molecules to the plasma membrane was established by cytoabsorption experiments in which IgM antibody staining of blotted antigens was specifically absorbed from systemic lupus erythematosus serum during 4 degrees C incubations with intact lymphocytes, and by their detection in purified lymphocyte plasma membranes. While the identity of these target antigens vis a vis known surface determinants was not defined, their expression on peripheral T cells from multiple donors and on cell lines of both undifferentiated (HSB-2) and phenotypically mature (Jurkat; HUT 78) types excluded alloantigens, major histocompatibility complex-encoded determinants, and most T cell differentiation antigens as candidates in this regard. Expression of the IgM autoantibody targets on HSB-2 cells argues against discrete T subset specificities as well. IgM reactivity with the 55-, 70-, and 105- to 110-kDa antigens by blotting was highly correlated with antilymphocyte antibody activity in complement-dependent cytotoxicity assays (Fisher's p less than 0.001), and paralleled flow microfluorimetric and microcytotoxicity quantitation of IgM antibody activity in serial observations of individual patients studied during different phases of disease activity. Taken together, these data suggest that IgM lymphocytotoxic antibodies in systemic lupus erythematosus are directed predominantly against a limited number of non-T cell subset-specific antigens.