While studying the alpha beta T cell receptor repertoire in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients, we found that the frequency of V beta 14+ T cells was significantly higher in the synovial fluid of affected joints than in the peripheral blood. In fact, V beta 14+ T cells were virtually undetectable in the peripheral blood of a majority of these RA patients. beta-chain sequences indicated that one or a few clones dominated the V beta 14+ population in the synovial fluid of individual RA patients, whereas oligoclonality was less marked for other V beta's and for V beta 14 in other types of inflammatory arthritis. These results implicate V beta 14-bearing T cells in the pathology of RA. They also suggest that the etiology of RA may involve initial activation of V beta 14+ T cells by a V beta 14-specific superantigen with subsequent recruitment of a few activated autoreactive v beta 14+ T cell clones to the joints while the majority of other V beta 14+ T cells disappear.