We have purified subpopulations of B lineage cells from human adult (rib) bone marrow by cell sorting and panning. Limiting dilution analysis was then used for a clonal analysis of cells able to secrete IgG, IgA, or IgM spontaneously or after infection with EBV. Nonproliferating, high rate IgG or IgA producers occurred at frequencies of about one per 1000 marrow mononuclear cells. Their frequency and Ig production was unaffected by EBV, and they appeared not to express EBNA after exposure to EBV. These cells were Ia+, B1+, and over 85% expressed sIg of the IgM/D (up to 75%) and/or IgG/A isotypes (40 to 60%). B cells committed to the secretion of IgM represent 2 to 10% of marrow B lymphocytes. They were found to be Ia+/B1+/B2+/CALLA- and C3b receptor (CR3)-cells, and most (greater than 90%) required infection with EBV and proliferation to develop into IgM-producing lymphocytes. Thirty to 40% of these cells did not express Ig (H or L chain) on their surface, and therefore resembled pre-B cells at the beginning of the 4- to 5-wk culture period. Proliferating pre-B cells from adult human marrow have been described, but their conversion into IgM-producing cells has not been formally demonstrated. Although EBV induces IgM production, the expression of EBNA, and several rounds of cell division in these cells, the induction of stable (greater than 5 wk) growth transformation represents a rare event in these pre-B cells: in several thousand limiting dilution wells, not a single culture of sIg-cells showed stable growth transformation. The dichotomy between EBV-induced high-rate IgM responses and absent growth transformation discriminates activation and transformation as distinct aspects of EBV-induced B cell "responses", and suggests that cellular properties play critical roles for viral transformation. We propose a model in which cellular target genes for transforming sequences in the EBV genome are transiently expressed during B cell differentiation.