Treatment with gold in the form of aurothiomaleate, silver or mercury (Hg) in genetically susceptible mouse strains (H-2(s)) induces a systemic autoimmune condition characterized by anti-nuclear antibodies targeting the 34-kDa nucleolar protein fibrillarin, as well as lymphoproliferation and systemic immune-complex (IC) deposits. In this study we have examined the effect of single-gene deletions for interferon (IFN)-gamma, interleukin (IL)-4, IL-6 or CD28 in B10.S (H-2(s)) mice on heavy metal-induced autoimmunity. Targeting of the genes for IFN-gamma, IL-6 or CD28 abrogated the development of both anti-fibrillarin antibodies (AFA) and IC deposits using a modest dose of Hg (130 microg Hg/kg body weight/day). Deletion of IL-4 severely reduced the IgG1 AFA induced by all three metals, left the total IgG AFA response intact, but abrogated the Hg-induced systemic IC deposits. In conclusion, intact IFN-gamma and CD28 genes are necessary for induction of AFA with all three metals and systemic IC deposits using Hg, while lack of IL-4 distinctly skews the metal-induced AFA response towards T helper type 1. In a previous study using a higher dose of Hg (415 microg Hg/kg body weight/day), IC deposits were preserved in IL-4(-/-) and IL-6(-/-) mice, and also AFA in the latter mice. Therefore, the attenuated autoimmunity following loss of IL-4 and IL-6 is dose-dependent, as higher doses of Hg are able to override the attenuation observed using lower doses.