The formation of B lymphocytes is abnormal in autoimmune NZB and (NZB x NZW)F1 mice. With age, the proportion of sIg- Ly-5(220)+ pre-B cells and less mature B cell progenitors in the bone marrow progressively declines, reaching only approximately one-third of normal levels in 20-wk-old NZ mice. To determine the mechanisms responsible for the deficiency of NZ B lineage precursors, the mitotic activity of sIg- Ly-5(220)+ bone marrow cells in vivo was determined in NZ and conventional inbred mice as a function of age. The proportion of sIg- Ly-5(220)+ B cell precursors in (S + G2/M) stages of the cell cycle steadily decreased with age in NZ autoimmune mice. Furthermore, upon metaphase arrest, the rate of entry of sIg- Ly-5(220)+ bone marrow cells into G2/M also decreased with age in NZ mice. Therefore, the mitotic activity of sIg- Ly-5(220)+ B cell precursors is substantially decreased in NZ mice greater than or equal to 20 wk of age. The capacity of the bone marrow stromal microenvironment of NZ mice to support B lineage precursor growth was tested in two ways: 1) the capacity of preformed NZ bone marrow stroma to support B lineage cell growth in long term bone marrow cell culture under lymphopoietic conditions was assessed and 2) the capacity of NZ bone marrow B lineage precursors to expand in vivo after sublethal (200 rad) whole body irradiation was determined. Stroma derived from adult NZ mice supported the growth and development of B lineage lymphocytes in long term bone marrow cell culture to a greater extent than did age-matched conventional murine stroma. Furthermore, sublethal irradiation of older adult NZ mice resulted in some expansion of bone marrow sIg- Ly-5(220)+ B cell precursors in vivo. Therefore, the deficiency of B cell progenitors in the bone marrow of older NZ autoimmune mice is associated with diminished mitotic activity. However, this does not result from defects in the capacity of NZ bone marrow stroma to permit B lineage cell expansion as determined by both in vitro and in vivo experiments. In the absence of a detectable stromal cell defect, it is possible that an active inhibitory process within the bone marrow influences the mitotic activity of B cell precursors in NZ mice.