Monoclonal antibodies were used to examine the immunoglobulin isotypes expressed by B lymphocyte precursors of IgM, IgG, IgA, and IgA2 plasma cells. Plasma-cell differentiation was induced by the addition of pokeweed mitogen to cultures of blood mononuclear cells. Anti-mu, -gamma, -alpha, and -alpha 1 antibodies were used in some experiments to inhibit differentiation of B lymphocytes bearing these heavy chain isotypes, and for selective removal of B lymphocyte precursors before culture with pokeweed mitogen in other experiments. Three major subpopulations of B lymphocyte precursors were identified: (a) a subpopulation of surface (s) IgM+ precursors of IgM plasma cells that did not express IgG or IgA isotypes, (b) a subpopulation of sIgG+ precursors of IgG plasma cells of which approximately one-half bore some IgM and none had detectable IgA receptors, and (c) a subpopulation of sIgA+ precursors of IgA plasma cells; one half of these precursors could be shown to express functional IgM receptors but none were found to express IgG receptors. The sIgA subpopulation could be further subdivided into sIgA1+ precursors of IgA1 plasma cells and IgA1-negative precursors of IgA2 plasma cells. These results suggest that normal human B cells can switch from mu directly to each of the other heavy chain isotypes, and that these represent the main switch pathways.

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