Structural differences between alpha m (ther heavy chain of membrane IgA) and alpha s (the heavy chain of secretory IgA) were investigated. Messenger RNA from the human B lymphoblastoid line 32a.1, expressing both membrane and secretory IgA, was translated in a wheat germ cell-free system, resulting in the synthesis of two primary translation products for the alpha chain, that differed in molecular weight. In vivo pulse and pulse-chase experiments demonstrated that two early biosynthetic forms of the alpha chain were subsequently modified to yield three intracellular forms. As shown by endo-beta-N-acetylglucosaminidase H (endo H) treatment, these forms represent two alpha polypeptide chains, with varying compositions of N-linked oligosaccharides. Of the two forms of the alpha chain remaining after endo H treatment, only the form with the lowest molecular weight was associated with cells after long chase periods. The possible significance of this difference from the results with mu and delta chains is discussed. These results indicate that alpha m is distinguished from an alpha s by a difference in both primary structure and intracellular processing. The functional consequences of this distinction, previously shown for the heavy chain of membrane IgM (micrometer) and heavy chain of secretory IgM (microseconds), may reflect a principle common to the secretory and membrane forms of all immunoglobulin heavy chain classes.