In this study, we applied mAb and heterologous antisera in double marker combinations to investigate the phenotype and the proliferative activity of immature B lineage cells in XLA. Bone marrow (BM) samples from eight male adult patients with no circulating B lymphocytes were studied. The proportions and the phenotype of the earliest identifiable B cell progenitors, expressing nuclear terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT), cytoplasmic CD22, and membrane CD19 and CD10 were identical to those observed in normal BM. In XLA these cells represented 1.2% to 22% of BM mononuclear cells; 5% to 42% and 1% to 45% of such cells weakly expressed CD20 and CD37, respectively, and invariably lacked CD13 and CD33. Cytoplasmic mu+ sIg- pre-B cells were seen in low numbers (0.1% to 0.3%) in four samples and were undetectable in the remaining four. Consequently, the ratio TdT+/c mu+ was greater than 100 in five out of eight samples studied in contrast to the less than 10 values seen in normal individuals. The proliferative activity of B lineage progenitor cells was studied by using Ki67 and anti-bromodeoxyuridine mAb. Although the proliferation of TdT+ cells in XLA was comparable with that seen in normal BM samples (24% to 59% of TdT+ were Ki67+ and 11% to 27% incorporated bromodeoxyuridine), this was dramatically reduced in the c mu+ cells (no c mu+, Ki67+ seen in three samples where pre-B cells were observed). Thus, the abnormalities of B cell differentiation in XLA are first seen at the c mu+ pre-B stage and suggest a maturation block in the transition between TdT+, c mu- pre-pre-B cells and c mu+ pre-B cells. The severity of this block may be variable, allowing the generation of a near normal number of pre-B cells in some patients, which nevertheless have a defective proliferative activity. Finally, our study further supports the concept that the effects of the "XLA gene" are confined within the B lineage by demonstrating that the proportions of T cells bearing TCR-alpha beta and TCR-gamma delta in XLA are similar to those seen in normal individuals.