An effort has been made to integrate insights on charge-based interactions in immune complex glomerulonephritis with nuclear antigen involvement in lupus nephritis. Attention was focussed on the histones, a group of highly cationic nuclear constituents, which could be expected to bind to fixed anionic sites present in the glomerular basement membrane (GBM). We demonstrated that all histone subfractions, prepared according to Johns (4), have a high affinity for GBM and the basement membrane of peritubular capillaries. Tissue uptake of 125I-labeled histones was measured by injecting 200 micrograms of each fraction into the left kidney via the aorta and measuring organ uptake after 15 min. In glomeruli isolated from the left kidneys, the following quantities of histones were found: f1, 13 micrograms; f2a (f2al + f2a2), 17 micrograms; f2b, 17 micrograms; and f3, 32 micrograms. Kinetic studies of glomerular binding showed that f1 disappeared much more rapidly than f2a. The high affinity of histones (pI between 10.5 and 11.0; mol wt 10,000-22,000) for the GBM correlates well with their ability to form aggregates (mol wt greater than 100,000) for comparison lysozyme (pI 11, mol wt 14,000), which does not aggregate spontaneously bound poorly (0.4 micrograms in isolated glomeruli). The quantity of histones and lysozyme found in the isolated glomeruli paralleled their in vitro affinity for a Heparin-Sepharose column (gradient elution studies). This gel matrix contains the sulfated, highly anionic polysaccharide heparin, which is similar to the negatively charged heparan sulfate present in the GBM. Lysozyme eluted with 0.15 M NaCl, f1 with 1 M NaCl, and f2a, f2b, and f3 could not be fully desorbed even with 2 M NaCl; 6 M guanidine-HCl was necessary. Two further findings of great relevance for the concept of induction of immune complex glomerulonephritis by histones were: (a) glomerular-bound histone was accessible for specific antibody given intravenously; and (b) prior binding of histones promoted glomerular deposition of anionic antigens, as could be shown with ssDNA fragments. These data justify the proposal that glomerular deposition of histones can induce immune complex formation, start an inflammatory process, and produce tissue damage.