Systemic autoimmune diseases are frequently associated with clustering of high titer autoantibody responses towards nuclear self-antigens. Little is known, however, about the extent of immune tolerance to the target nuclear antigens or the events leading to the complex autoantibody responses that are characteristic of systemic autoimmunity. To address these issues, we have examined the mouse immune response to La autoantigen (mLa) and the homologous human La antigen (hLa), which are components of the La(SS-B)/Ro(SS-A) ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complex targeted in systemic lupus erythematosus and primary Sjogren's syndrome. The findings reveal the presence of hierarchical T cell tolerance involving multiple autodeterminants within the La autoantigen expressed by normal H-2(k) and H-2a mice. At one end of this spectrum, there was no detectable T or B cell autoimmunity observed in mice that were immunized with the immunodominant mLa287-301 determinant, which differed by a single residue in its core sequence from the homologous but highly immunogenic human La288-302 determinant. Interestingly, the mLa287-301 peptide acted as an altered peptide ligand that specifically antagonized the activation of an hLa288-302-specific T cell hybridoma. In contrast to the tolerogenic mLa287-301 determinant, a range of autoimmune potential was identified among poorly tolerizing, subdominant self-peptides present within mouse La autoantigen. Notably, immunization of normal mice with the autologous subdominant La25-44 and La106-129 determinants resulted in limited or no detectable autoantibody response. In contrast, immunization with the subdominant mouse La13-30 determinant induced a proliferative T cell response associated with the appearance of specific autoantibodies recognizing multiple intrastructural (La) and intermolecular components (Ro) of the murine La/Ro RNP. The findings suggest how diversified autoimmunity might follow initiation of immunity to simple peptide mimics of poorly tolerogenic determinants that are present within ubiquitous self-antigens.