The receptor characteristics as well as incidence of antigen-binding lymphocytes (ABL) or B and T cell classes with membrane receptors specific for the exposed (X) and cryptic (HB) murine erythrocyte autoantigens were examined in NZB and nine control strains of mice. Whereas only NZB and NZB hybrid mice synthesize anti-X autoantibody pathogenetically implicated in the genetically determined autoimmune hemolytic anemia, the NZB as well as control strains synthesize the ubiquitous anti-HB anti-erythrocyte autoantibody. By utilizing immunocytoadherence assays, maximum numbers of specific ABL of both B and T lymphocyte classes were optimally demonstrated at erythrocyte:lymphocyte ratios of 20:1 and after lymphocyte fixation at 56 degrees C for 20 min. Surface membrane receptor specificity was established by inhibition with semi-purified soluble X or HB autoantigen. Inhibition of immunocyto-adherence with class specific antisera to mouse immuno-globulins demonstrated that the receptors on both B and T cells were of IgM class. Specific receptors regenerated in vitro after trypsinization which excluded the role of cytophilic antibody in the immunocytoadherence reactions. B lymphocyte ABL reactive with the X autoantigen were demonstrable in NZB, NZB hybrid, and control mice. Only in NZB and NZB hybrid mice, strains that uniformly synthesize anti-X autoantibody, were X ABL of T lymphocyte class demonstrated. The presence and incidence of T lymphocyte X ABL is compatible with the expression of a single dominant gene carried by the NAB strain. The incidence of B lymphocyte X ABL increased with age, suggesting proliferation of this cell population. HB ABL of both B and T lymphocyte classes were observed in all strains, concordant with the ubiquitous presence of humoral anti-HB autoantibodies. Differentiation of precursor B cells are evaluated by PFC assay of cells secreting specific autoantibodies. Anti-X PFC were observed only in NZB and NZB hybrid mice; and the observed frequency suggested that less than 3.5% of the specific ABL were differentiated for the secretion of anti-X autoantibody. Anti-HB PFC were observed in all strains and represented as high as 11.8% of specific ABL. Genetic determination of the anti-X anti-erythrocyte autoantibody response does not prescribe the presence of precursors of the antibody-forming cell, but rather appears to influence regulation of the differentiation of these cells. These data suggest that circumvention of immunologic tolerance to this specific erythrocyte autoantigen may occur at the level of the T lymphocyte; or alternatively, that T lymphocytes as well as B lymphocytes, are induced to proliferate and differentiate in the NZB strain.