In an attempt to characterize the heterogeneity of the human autoantibody response, mice with severe combined immunodeficiency were reconstituted with synovial or blood lymphocytes from patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Mononuclear cells extracted from synovial fluid or tissue (SMC) were a greatly enriched source of IgM rheumatoid factor (RF)-producing cells compared to the peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of rheumatoid arthritis patients or normal donors. Six to nine weeks after reconstitution of mice with synovial mononuclear cells, 0%-39.3% (mean = 11.4%) of total IgM consisted of IgM RF compared to 0%-0.15% (mean = 0.02%) in mice given RA PBMC and 0%-1.2% (mean = 0.34%) in mice given normal PBMC. Detectable levels of IgM RF were maintained in some mice for as long as 20 weeks after transfer. Mice reconstituted with synovial membrane or synovial fluid lymphocytes produced a heterogeneous mixture of immunoglobulins. These included other autoantibodies, such as anti-nuclear and anti-cytoplasmic antibodies, and antibodies to exogenous antigens such as the Epstein-Barr virus nuclear antigen-1 (EBNA-1). This heterogeneity is further illustrated by the demonstration that the sera from mice given synovial cells also contained IgG antibodies possessing all three major VH families (VH1, VH3 and VH4) and the four major V kappa families (V kappa 1 to V kappa 4). Autoantibody production gradually decreased with time even under circumstances where total immunoglobulin levels increased, and elevated production could not be induced by antigenic stimulation. These findings describe a new model for the analysis of human autoantibody production.