The idiopathic inflammatory bowel diseases, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, are chronic disorders that appear to arise from an aberrant interaction of environmental, genetic, and immunologic factors. The aim of this study was to examine the immune reactivity of a spontaneously colitic mouse strain, C3H/HeJBir, to epithelial, food, and enteric bacterial Ags. Serum Ab responses of colitic C3H/HeJBir and noncolitic parental C3H/HeJ mice were measured by enhanced chemiluminescence Western blotting. No reactivity to epithelial or food Ags was detected. However, the sera from C3H/HeJBir mice had a reproducible banding pattern on Western blot to bacterial Ags, whereas sera from C3H/HeJ mice did not. Only a small, highly selected number of enteric bacterial Ags were recognized. There were major differences in the degree of recognition of different bacterial strains, marked by remarkably few Abs to Ags of the major anaerobes of the bacterial flora. The serum Abs detected on immunoblot were primarily IgG2a, suggesting a Th1 response. Comparison of sera reactivity to histopathologic severity showed an inverse relationship: one third of young C3H/HeJBir mice during the peak of colitis produced Abs to bacterial Ags, while later in life, when the colitis had resolved, 96% produced Abs. These data are consistent with an abnormal immune reactivity to enteric bacterial flora in C3H/HeJBir mice, a reactivity that is highly selective considering the abundant bacterial Ags present in the colon lumen. We postulate that this reactivity plays a role in the pathogenesis of colitis in these mice.