Unconventional Ag for B cells that are comparable to known superantigens for T lymphocytes have not been well characterized. However, the bacterial membrane protein, Staphylococcal protein A (SpA), has sites that interact with the Fab of many IgM, IgA, IgG, and IgE, and in recent reports we have provided evidence of VH restriction in Fab that bind SpA. To investigate the molecular basis for this Fab binding specificity, we have selected monoclonal Fab from a phage-display combinatorial Ig library, based on the ability to bind SpA. By this approach, in an unselected human polyclonal IgG Fab library, about 17% of antibody-expressing clones were found to bind SpA. SpA binding was completely restricted to Fab with VH3 H chains, and about 60% of VH3 Fab in the unselected library had SpA binding capacity. Analysis of 21 VH sequences and 6 VL sequences demonstrated that Fab that bind SpA use diverse VH3 genes, while the L chains derive from a variety of V kappa and V lambda gene families. By creation of antibodies with differential H-L chain pairing, the global capacity to bind SpA was shown to be dictated by VH3 usage, but different L chain usage could result in up to a fourfold change in binding affinity. The apparent KD of the SpA binding by different Fab ranged from 2.5 x 10(-7) to > 10(-5) M. Furthermore, repeated rounds of in vitro panning selected for antibodies based on higher binding affinity. These data indicate that the pattern of VH family restriction of Ig reactive with SpA is comparable to known superantigens, and there is a hierarchy within the binding affinities of VH3 Fab based on V gene usage.