Alz-50 is a monoclonal antibody that detects antigens enriched in the brain tissue of Alzheimer's disease (AD) patients. Although Alz-50 recognizes tau, an identified integral constituent of the AD paired helical filament (PHF), the exact nature of the antigenic site is unknown. An immunoblot analysis demonstrated that the antigenic sites to Alz-50 are diminished by acid phosphatase treatment. Consistent with this finding, Alz-50 antigens were more concentrated in brain homogenates prepared with phosphatase inhibitors. The epitope in tau with which Alz-50 reacts is located in the carboxy terminus within a 14- amino acid region from just beyond the microtubule-binding repeats to the carboxy terminus. An isolated carboxy-terminal chymotryptic peptide from bovine brain tau reactive with Alz-50 was analyzed by fast-atom- bombardment mass spectroscopy (FAB-MS) and was found to be present as both a monophosphopeptide and a nonphosphorylated peptide. The immunohistological analysis has demonstrated that Alz-50 staining of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) is sensitive to acid phosphatase but not to alkaline phosphatase. Furthermore, Alz-50 staining of NFTs was effectively adsorbed by a high concentration of phosphoserine but not by serine or phosphothreonine. These results strongly suggest that Alz- 50 recognizes a phosphorylated epitope in the carboxy terminus of tau which has not been previously detected by using alkaline phosphatase. The strong Alz-50 staining in AD samples may represent another association between a phosphorylation state and neurofibrillary lesions. As a marker of the inchoate tangle-bearing neuron, the characterization of the Alz-50 epitope in tau offers a partial molecular basis for the modifications that contribute to the assembly of PHFs.