Only a fraction (12%) of 268 "autoreactive" T cell clones derived from lupus-prone mice can selectively induce the production of pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibodies in vitro and accelerate the development of lupus nephritis when transferred in vivo. The CDR3 loops of T cell receptor beta chains expressed by these pathogenic T helper (Th) clones contain a recurrent motif of anionic residues suggesting that they are selected by autoantigens with cationic residues. Herein, we found that approximately 50% of these pathogenic Th clones were specific for nucleosomal antigens, but none of them responded to cationic idiopeptides shared by variable regions of pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibodies. Nucleosomes did not stimulate the T cells as a nonspecific mitogen or superantigen. Only the pathogenic Th cells of lupus responded to nucleosomal antigens that were processed and presented via the major histocompatibility class II pathway. Although the presentation of purified mononucleosomes to the Th clones could be blocked by inhibitors of endosomal proteases, neither of the two components of the nucleosomes--free DNA or histones by themselves--could stimulate the Th clones. Thus critical peptide epitopes for the Th cells were probably protected during uptake and processing of the nucleosome particle as a whole. The nucleosome-specific Th clones preferentially augmented the production of IgG autoantibodies to histone-DNA complex in vitro. In vivo, nucleosome-specific, CD4+ T cells were not detectable in normal mice, but they were found in the spleens of lupus-prone mice as early as 1 mo of age, long before other autoimmune manifestations. Immunization of young, preautoimmune lupus mice with nucleosomes augmented the production of autoantibodies and markedly accelerated the development of severe glomerulonephritis. Previously, crude preparations containing nucleosomes were shown by others to have polyclonal mitogenic activity for B cells from normal as well as lupus mice. Identification here of pure mononucleosome as a lupus-specific immunogen for the Th cells that selectively help the pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibody producing B cells of lupus could lead to the design of specific therapy against this pathogenic autoimmune response.