The effect of phorbol ester on human B cell activation was examined. Picomolar to nanomolar concentrations of phorbol ester induced a high level of proliferation in small IgM-positive B cells isolated from peripheral blood by fluorescence-activated cell sorting. The addition of optimal doses of anti-mu antibody resulted in enhanced proliferation of phorbol ester-activated B cells. The addition of B cell growth factor (BCGF) to phorbol ester-activated B cells also resulted in a dose-dependent synergistic effect and maximal enhancement on day 3. BCGF activity could be absorbed with either phorbol ester- or anti-mu-activated B cells, but not with resting B cells, thus confirming the induction of functional BCGF receptor expression. Cell proliferation was not necessary for the induction of functional BCGF receptors. Phorbol ester was a more efficient inducer of BCGF receptor expression than was anti-mu antibody; gamma-interferon treatment had no effect. BCGF enhanced transferrin receptor expression by phorbol ester-activated B cells. The results suggest that phorbol ester-activated small B cells can be used to monitor BCGF activity, and this synergistic combination may be useful in establishing BCGF-dependent B cell clones in culture.