Autoimmune tubulointerstitial nephritis was induced in Brown-Norway (BN) rats by immunization with bovine (Bov) tubular basement membrane (TBM) in complete Freund's adjuvant. Serum antibodies thus produced reacted to a greater extent with Bov than BN TBM antigens by indirect immunofluorescence and by radioimmunoassay with particulate (P) and collagenase-solubilized (CS) TBM. The quantities of antibodies reactive with CS TBM correlated with the intensity of tubulointerstitial pathologic changes. Antibodies eluted from kidneys reactive with BN TBM by indirect immunofluorescence were 508 times more concentrated in the kidney than in the serum, compared with 15 times for Bov TBM-reactive antibodies. The reactivity of eluted antibodies to P BN TBM was inhibited by 70% after absorption with BN CS TBM. A major CS TBM antigen of 42,000 m.w. was identified by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. This antigen was present in both Bov and BN TBM, and may be important in triggering autoantibody formation in this model. Lewis rats immunized under the same conditions produced antibodies reactive with BN TBM by immunofluorescence but failed to develop immune deposits in TBM of their own kidneys. Analysis of serum anti-TBM antibodies in Lewis rats revealed a selective lack of reactivity with either homologous or autologous CS TBM. These results suggest that the ability to make an immune response to one or more elements of CS TBM plays a major role in the development of autoimmune tubulointerstitial nephritis in rats.