Highly purified human large granular (LGL), depleted of any detectable contaminant T and B cells or monocytes, were found to be potent producers in vitro of a soluble B cell growth factor (BCGF) able to sustain proliferation of B cells activated by anti-mu. Activation by lectins (phytohemagglutinin, PHA, concanavalin A, Con A; and pokeweed mitogen, PWM) was required to induce the production of high levels of this BCGF from cultured LGL. Production of BCGF was also detected after the binding of LGL with natural killer (NK)-sensitive (K562) but not with NK-resistant (RL male 1) target cells. In contrast to T cells, LGL did not need the additional presence of accessory cells to reach optimal production of BCGF by 72 hr of culture. The subpopulation of LGL responsible for the production of BCGF had phenotypic characteristics associated with NK cells (3G8+, HNK1+/OKT11+, DR-, OKT3-, Leu-M1-), and separated cells with these markers exerted high levels of NK activity. Selective production of BCGF also was obtained from cytotoxic clones derived from LGL. A partial characterization of the LGL-derived BCGF was performed by gel filtration. BCGF activity was detected in fractions with estimated m.w. of 20,000 and 45,000. The LGL-derived BCGF activity was resistant to reduction with 2-mercaptoethanol and was stable at -20 degrees C for months. Conversely, heating (56 degrees C for 1 hr) or digestion with trypsin greatly reduced the LGL-derived BCGF activity. These findings strongly suggest that LGL including those with NK activity can play an important positive role in the early events of the B cell-mediated immune response.