Immunization of BALB/c mice with idiotypic IgM rescued by hybridization from the syngeneic BCL1 lymphoma protects specifically against challenge with tumor cells, with 83% surviving greater than 100 days compared with controls (38 +/- 10 days). Spleens from long-term survivors (greater than 6 mo) with no macroscopically visible tumor, when examined with anti-idiotypic antibody, showed a range of apparently dormant tumor with BCL1 cells present at 2 to 50% of total. A spectrum of protection against tumor resulted from immunization, and tumor emerging in the period 53 to 173 days postpassage was investigated for expression of idiotype. It was found that cells from individual mice expressed variable amounts of idiotypic IgM at the cell surface, although it was always detectable in the intracellular compartment. Unlike typical BCL1 cells, tumor cells developing in immune spleens often secreted little idiotypic IgM either in vitro or in vivo. This modulation of expression and secretion of idiotype was detected even in the apparent absence of serum anti-idiotypic antibody. On passage of spleen cells from the long-term survivors into naive animals, BCL1 tumor developed and killed the recipients in a way indistinguishable from routine tumor passage. These tumor cells, however, both expressed and secreted IgM of the same idiotype as the original tumor. It appears therefore that tumor development in immunized mice is suppressed by a process that includes modulation but not selection of the tumor cell idiotypic determinants. Analysis of possible mechanisms of suppression revealed the presence of cytotoxic anti-idiotypic antibody at variable levels in sera of immunized mice, and splenic T cells that proliferated specifically in response to idiotypic IgM. Only low levels of cytotoxic T cells were found. Passive transfer studies demonstrated a major role for antibody in protection against tumor, with no significant enhancement by immune lymphocytes.