Plasmid and adenoviral vectors have been used to generate antibodies in mice that resemble human autoantibodies to the thyrotrophin receptor. No such studies, however, have been performed for thyroid peroxidase (TPO), the major autoantigen in human thyroiditis. We constructed plasmid and adenovirus vectors for in vivo expression of TPO. BALB/c mice were immunized directly by intramuscular injection of TPO-plasmid or TPO-adenovirus, as well as by subcutaneous injection of dendritic cells (DC) infected previously with TPO-adenovirus. Intramuscular TPO-adenovirus induced the highest, and TPO-plasmid the lowest, TPO antibody titres. Mice injected with TPO-transfected DC developed intermediate levels. Antibodies generated by all three approaches had similar affinities (Kd approximately 10(-9)M) and recognized TPO expressed on the cell-surface. Their epitopes were analysed in competition assays using monoclonal human autoantibodies that define the TPO immunodominant region (IDR) recognized by patients with thyroid autoimmune disease. Surprisingly, high titre antibodies generated using adenovirus interacted with diverse TPO epitopes largely outside the IDR, whereas low titre antibodies induced by DNA-plasmid recognized restricted epitopes in the IDR. This inverse relationship between antibody titre and restriction to the IDR is likely to be due to epitope spreading following strong antigenic stimulation provided by the adenovirus vector. However, TPO antibody epitope spreading does not occur in Hashimoto's thyroiditis, despite high autoantibody levels. Consequently, these data support the concept that in human thyroid autoimmunity, factors besides titre must play a role in shaping an autoantibody epitopic profile.