High-titer IgG autoantibodies to the La/SS-B ribonucleoprotein (RNP) are a hallmark of patients with primary Sjogren's syndrome. Anti-La/SS-B-positive human sera bind to multiple epitopes on recombinant La/SS-B, although the initial response is against an immunodominant epitope within the first 107 NH2-terminal amino acids (aa). Sequence analysis has identified a striking homology between aa 88-101 in this NH2-terminal region of La/SS-B and a feline retroviral gag polypeptide suggesting the anti-La/SS-B response may be initiated by cross-reactivity with an exogenous agent. In the present study, detailed mapping of this NH2-terminal epitope, using recombinant La/SS-B purified from the expression of overlapping DNA fragments spanning aa 1-107, has shown that this immunodominant epitope is a complex conformational or discontinuous epitope dependent upon both aa 12-28 and 82-99 for expression, even though these regions share no homology with each other. This requirement questions the significance of the homology between La/SS-B and a retroviral gag polypeptide in the generation of the B cell response to La/SS-B and is in accord with the general concept that B cells recognize conformational epitopes on antigens rather than small linear peptide sequences. The finding also reinforces the notion that native autoantigen could be the initiator of the autoimmune response.