Human serum amyloid P component (SAP) binds avidly to DNA, chromatin and apoptotic cells in vitro and in vivo. 129/Sv x C57BL/6 mice with targeted deletion of the SAP gene spontaneously develop antinuclear autoantibodies and immune complex glomerulonephritis. SAP-deficient animals, created by backcrossing the 129/Sv SAP gene deletion into pure line C57BL/6 mice and studied here for the first time, also spontaneously developed broad spectrum antinuclear autoimmunity and proliferative immune complex glomerulonephritis but without proteinuria, renal failure, or increased morbidity or mortality. Mice hemizygous for the SAP gene deletion had an intermediate autoimmune phenotype. Injected apoptotic cells and isolated chromatin were more immunogenic in SAP(-/-) mice than in wild-type mice. In contrast, SAP-deficient pure line 129/Sv mice did not produce significant autoantibodies either spontaneously or when immunized with extrinsic chromatin or apoptotic cells, indicating that loss of tolerance is markedly strain dependent. However, SAP deficiency in C57BL/6 mice only marginally affected plasma clearance of exogenous chromatin and had no effect on distribution of exogenous nucleosomes between the liver and kidneys, which were the only tissue sites of catabolism. Furthermore, transgenic expression of human SAP in the C57BL/6 SAP knockout mice did not abrogate the autoimmune phenotype. This may reflect the different binding affinities of mouse and human SAP for nuclear autoantigens and/or the heterologous nature of transgenic human SAP in the mouse. Alternatively, the autoimmunity may be independent of SAP deficiency and caused by expression of 129/Sv chromosome 1 genes in the C57BL/6 background.