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Antibodies that recognize and bind to DNA (anti-DNA antibodies) are serological hallmarks of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and key markers for diagnosis and disease activity. In addition to common use in the clinic, anti-DNA antibody testing now also determines eligibility for clinical trials, raising important questions about the nature of the antibody-antigen interaction. At present, no ‘gold standard’ for serological assessment exists, and anti-DNA antibody binding can be measured with a variety of assay formats, which differ in the nature of the DNA substrates and in the conditions for binding and detection of antibodies. A mechanism called monogamous bivalency — in which high avidity results from simultaneous interaction of IgG Fab sites with a single polynucleotide chain — determines anti-DNA antibody binding; this mechanism might affect antibody detection in different assay formats. Although anti-DNA antibodies can promote pathogenesis by depositing in the kidney or driving cytokine production, they are not all alike, pathologically, and anti-DNA antibody expression does not necessarily correlate with active disease. Levels of anti-DNA antibodies in patients with SLE can vary over time, distinguishing anti-DNA antibodies from other pathogenic antinuclear antibodies. Elucidation of the binding specificities and the pathogenic roles of anti-DNA antibodies in SLE should enable improvements in the design of informative assays for both clinical and research purposes.