The heavy metal mercury elicits a genetically restricted, anti- nucleolar autoantibody response that targets fibrillarin, a 34-kDa protein component of many small nucleolar ribonucleoprotein particles. The mechanisms by which a toxin such as mercury elicits an autoantibody response that predominantly targets a single intracellular protein autoantigen remain uncertain, but may be prefaced by mercury gaining access to the intracellular environment. Mercury-induced cell death was associated with loss of fibrillarin antigenicity and modification of the molecular properties of fibrillarin as revealed by aberrant migration under nonreducing conditions in SDS-PAGE. Addition of mercury to isolated nuclei also resulted in aberrant migration of fibrillarin, but not other nuclear autoantigens. The sensitivity of the HgCl2- induced modification of fibrillarin to 2-ME, iodoacetamide, and hydrogen peroxide suggested interaction of mercury with the two cysteines in the fibrillarin sequence. This was confirmed by mutation of the cysteines to alanines, which abolished the aberrant migration of fibrillarin in the presence of HgCl2. The modification of the molecular structure of fibrillarin by mercury reduced immunoprecipitation by anti- fibrillarin autoantibodies, pointing to unmodified fibrillarin as the B cell Ag and implicating mercury-modified fibrillarin as the source of T cell antigenicity. These observations demonstrate for the first time that an environmental toxin can alter the physicochemical properties of an autoantigen and may help to explain the antigenic specificity of mercury-induced murine autoimmunity.