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The recently described anti-A2/RA33 autoantibodies occur in 20-40% of patients with RA, SLE, and mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD). They are directed to the A2 protein of the heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein complex (hnRNP-A2), an abundant nuclear protein associated with the spliceosome. The NH2-terminal half of the antigen contains two conserved RNA binding domains whereas its COOH-terminal part is extremely glycine-rich. The aim of this study was to characterize the autoepitopes of hnRNP-A2 and to investigate the effects of anti-A2/RA33 autoantibodies on possible functions of the antigen. Using bacterially expressed fragments, two major discontinuous epitopes were identified. One containing the complete second RNA binding domain was recognized by the majority of patients with RA and SLE but not by patients with MCTD. The second epitope contained sequences of both RNA binding domains and was preferentially targeted by patients with MCTD. When the RNA binding properties of the antigen were investigated, oligoribonucleotides containing the sequence motif r(UUAG) were found to bind to a site closely adjacent or overlapping with the epitope targeted by autoantibodies from patients with RA and SLE. Moreover, anti-A2/RA33 autoantibodies from patients with RA or SLE, but not from patients with MCTD, inhibited binding of RNA. Thus, anti-A2/RA33 autoantibodies recognize conformation-dependent epitopes located in a functionally important region of the antigen. Furthermore, the specific recognition of an epitope by MCTD patients may be used as another argument in favor of considering MCTD a distinct connective tissue disease.