The time course of differentiative events in the pentamer IgM response was examined by following the expression of J chain and mu chain RNA and their protein products in mitogen-stimulated lymphocytes. The analyses showed that the shift to mus RNA synthesis begins shortly after stimulation and precedes proliferation of the cells and any increase in mu RNA levels. In contrast, expression of J chain RNA and the amplification of J chain and mus message are late events that coincide with a phase of rapid proliferation and with the secretion of pentamer IgM antibody. The kinetics of J and mu chain RNA expression observed in normal lymphocytes were supported by analyses of lymphoid cell lines. B lymphomas were found to display the RNA pattern characteristic of early-activated lymphocytes, i.e., a partial shift to mus RNA production and no J chain RNA, whereas IgM-secreting lines resembled late-activated lymphocytes in their expression of high levels of both mus and J chain mRNA. Moreover, the kinetics of J and mus chain RNA expression correlates with the sequential action of B cell lymphokines in the induction of the pentamer IgM response. This correlation suggests that the successive differentiative changes are triggered by successive membrane stimuli.