J chain expression was examined as a function of the stage in differentiation along the B cell axis in humans. Intracellular distribution of J and mu chains in leukemic HLA-DR+ null and pre-B cells, and in normal B cells stimulated with pokeweed mitogen (PWM) was determined by immunoelectron microscopy and radioimmunoassay (RIA). J chain was detected in leukemic null and pre-B cells on free and membrane-bound ribosomes in the cytoplasm, or on perinuclear cisternae. Mu chain was found on free ribosomes and ribosomal clusters in leukemic pre-B cells but was absent in the leukemic null cells. In pre-B cell lines, mu chain was seen within rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) and the Golgi apparatus whereas J chain was not detected in these organelles. However, both mu and J chain were detected in RER and the Golgi apparatus of immature and mature plasma cells induced by PWM stimulation of normal peripheral blood lymphocytes. Low levels of J chain were also detected by RIA in lysates of leukemic null and pre-B cells. Most of the intracellular J chain became detectable after reduction and alkylation of cell lysates, and free J chain was not found in the culture supernatants. The amount of intracellular and secreted immunoglobulin-bound J chain increased dramatically after PWM stimulation of peripheral blood lymphocytes. The majority of J chain-positive cells seen over an 8 d culture interval were lymphocytes and lymphoblasts, while mu chain was found primarily in plasma cells. These results suggest that J chain expression precedes mu chain synthesis during B cell differentiation and that a combination of the two chains for secretion is not initiated until the onset of plasma cells maturation.