Perturbation of epithelial structure is a prominent but poorly understood feature of the immunopathological response to bacterial antigens which characterizes the destructive lesion of periodontitis. Western analysis of sera from 22 patients with periodontitis detected multiple antigens in extracts of epithelial cells whereas sera from 12 periodontally healthy subjects displayed only trace reaction with epithelial antigens. To investigate a possible relationship between the bacterial flora adjacent to diseased sites and the presence of antibodies reactive with epithelium, subgingival plaque samples were taken from deep periodontal pockets and cultured anaerobically. Gram positive bacteria containing antigens cross-reactive with epithelial cells were reproducibly isolated by probing membrane colony-lifts with affinity-isolated (epithelium-specific) antibodies and identified by 16S rDNA sequence homology as streptococci (S. mitis, S. constellatus and two S. intermedius strains) and Actinomyces (A. georgiae, and A. sp. oral clone). Conversely, when serum from patients with periodontitis was absorbed with the captured bacterial species the number of epithelial antigens recognized was specifically reduced. It was concluded that development of cross-reactive antibodies related to these organisms may contribute to perturbation of the epithelial attachment to the tooth and the progression of periodontitis. These autoreactive antibodies could also be a contributing factor in other diseases affecting epithelia.