Deoxyribonucleases (DNases) are key enzymes for digesting DNA. Abnormalities in the function of these enzymes may contribute to the development of anti-DNA antibodies in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In this study, we used bovine DNase 1-coated ELISA plates to screen anti-DNase antibodies in SLE patients. About 62% of the sera of SLE patients (63/101) were positive for anti-DNase antibodies compared to only 8% of normal controls (8/98). A positive correlation was also found between the concentrations of anti-DNase and anti-DNA antibodies in sera of SLE patients. Affinity-purified anti-DNase immunoglobulin G (IgG) from pooled sera of SLE patients bound to bovine DNase as well as DNA. A synthetic peptide, corresponding to the catalytic site of DNase, was able to completely inhibit the binding of anti-DNase IgG to DNase. In addition to bovine DNase, the anti-DNase IgG also bound to and inhibited the enzymatic activities of DNase present in streptococcal supernatants and human urine. Immunization of lupus-prone NZB/NZW mice with bovine DNase enhanced the production of anti-DNase and DNA antibodies, and accelerated the occurrence of proteinuria. Taken together, these results suggest that DNase-inhibitory antibodies which recognize a conserved epitope near the catalytic site of DNase may act in the pathogenesis of SLE.