BACKGROUND: Monoclonal antibodies to proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) are increasingly used for evaluation of cell proliferation especially in diagnostic pathology. To understand the different staining characteristics of such antibodies, we found it important to map the reactive epitopes in detail. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: Overlapping, synthetic 15-mer peptides encoding the entire PCNA amino acid sequence were analyzed for reactivity with 6 anti- PCNA monoclonal antibodies using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and flow cytometric competition analysis. One immunodominant region was studied using a set of peptides with single amino acid substitutions. Further epitope localization was obtained by immunoblotting of fusion protein constructs. RESULTS: The epitopes recognized by the antibodies could be assigned to specific peptides. Five monoclonal antibodies (19A2, 19F4, TO17, TO30, PC10) reacted with the same protein region (aa 111-125) whereas one antibody (TOB7) recognized a separate region of the protein (aa 181-195). The reactivity pattern with 8 recombinant PCNA-fusion proteins agreed with the peptide data. The immunodominant aa 111-125 peptide reactive antibodies differed concerning immunofluorescence patterns. These differences could be attributed to epitope microheterogeneity within this peptide as determined by reactivity with Ala- substituted peptides. The 19A2, 19F4 and PC10 antibodies showed nuclear fluorescence and similar but not identical peptide recognition patterns. Compared with 19A2 and 19F4, the PC10 antibody was directed against a simpler epitope. TO17 and TO30 gave cytoplasmic filamentous staining and their epitopes were different from those defined by the other monoclonal antibodies. CONCLUSIONS: The results indicate that induced anti-PCNA antibodies recognize well defined linear epitopes, in contrast to PCNA autoepitopes which are strongly dependent on the protein conformation.