Antibody penetration of viable cells and interaction with intracellular antigens may have major consequences for immunopathological processes in connective tissue diseases. We have reported previously that antibody can penetrate viable human lymphocytes. To assess further the role of antinuclear antibodies in this process, peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBMC) were incubated with FITC-conjugated IgG fractions from sera containing anti-RNP (anti-RNP IgG), Ro(SS-A), La(SS-B) and dsDNA antibodies and control sera for 24 h. Using crystal violet to quench cell surface staining, intracellular fluorescence of viable lymphocytes was quantified on the flow cytometer. It was noted that anti-RNP IgG entered 46.4 +/- 7.2% of lymphocytes which was significantly higher than anti-Ro(SS-A) (29.9 +/- 4.1%, P less than 0.05), La(SS-B) (22.0 +/- 7.5%, P less than 0.01) IgG and control IgG (28.8 +/- 2.1%, P less than 0.05) and not statistically different from anti-dsDNA IgG (32.6 +/- 14.3%). Inhibition experiments showed that the increased number of cells penetrated by anti-RNP IgG was a specific process. Time-course studies showed that anti-RNP IgG entry into cells was different from pooled control IgG. With anti-RNP IgG, positive-staining lymphocytes gradually increased in number from 12 to 24 h incubation, whilst with pooled control IgG, the peak was reached within 5 min. Dual staining experiments suggested that whereas both anti-RNP IgG and pooled control IgG entered B and NK cells, anti-RNP IgG also entered T cells. Using IgG F(ab')2 and Fc fragments from either anti-RNP IgG or pooled control IgG to compete with their FITC-conjugated counterparts indicated that the entry of anti-RNP IgG into-viable cells appeared to involve both F(ab')2 and Fc fragments, and pooled control IgG depended exclusively on the Fc portion of IgG. Further investigation by incubating anti-RNP IgG with 35S-methionine-labelled monocyte-depleted PBMC (MD-PBMC) suggested that anti-RNP IgG might react with the corresponding antigens either on the cell surface or within the cytoplasm.