The processes that govern the generation of pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibodies in human systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) are largely unknown. Autoantibodies may arise as a consequence of polyclonal B cell activation and/or antigen-driven B cell activation and selection. The role of these processes in humoral autoimmunity may be studied by molecular genetic analysis of immunoglobulin (Ig) variable (V) regions of antibodies that are characteristic of SLE. We have analyzed the gene elements that encode a high affinity, IgG anti-double-stranded DNA autoantibody secreted by a monoclonal Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-transformed cell line derived from a patient with active SLE. In addition, we have identified, cloned, and sequenced the germline counterparts of the VH and VL genes expressed in this autoantibody. The comparison of both sets of gene elements shows that the autoantibody VH and VL regions harbor numerous somatic mutations characteristic of an antigen-driven immune response. The light chain expressed in this autoantibody is a somatically mutated variant of the kv325 germline gene that is frequently associated with paraproteins having autoantibody activity and with Ig molecules produced by malignant B cells that express the CD5 antigen. Furthermore, the utilized DH segment has been repeatedly found in multireactive, low affinity IgM anti-DNA autoantibodies from SLE patients and healthy individuals. These results suggest that pathogenic IgG anti-DNA autoantibodies in human SLE may arise through antigen-driven selection of somatic mutations in the gene elements that frequently encode multireactive IgM autoantibodies.