Autoantibodies to mitochondrial antigens are characteristic of the autoimmune liver disease primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), but the precise antigenic determinants recognized by these antibodies have not been defined. Recently, our laboratory identified a 1,370-bp rat liver cDNA clone that coded for a polypeptide recognized specifically by sera from patients with PBC but not by sera from patients with other forms of liver disease. This recombinant protein was identified as the 74-kD M2 mitochondrial inner membrane autoantigen, now known to be dihydrolipoamide acetyltransferase. In the present study, we have identified a 603-bp fragment that codes for a polypeptide containing all of the autoreactivity of the original clone. In addition, based on hydrophobicity/hydrophilicity plots of the amino acid sequence of this polypeptide segment, several peptides were synthesized and tested for reactivity by an inhibition assay using sera from patients with PBC. One peptide, defined by the amino acids AEIETDKATIGFEVQEEGYL, absorbed serum reactivity to the protein product of the original clone. Of particular interest was the finding that this peptide contains the lipoic acid binding site KATIGF of the dihydrolipoamide acetyltransferase found in the inner mitochondrial membrane. Thus, it appears that for this autoantigen, the target of the autoantibodies corresponds to a functional site of the dihydrolipoamide acetyltransferase.