Using isolated idiotype (Id) protein we generated panels of antibodies in two patients with follicular lymphoma, one of whom had never received prior chemo-or radiotherapy. Flow cytometry and frozen section tissue staining of tumor with these monoclonal antibodies (mAb) revealed multiple subpopulations within each tumor. Individual mAb stained between 7% and 83% of surface Ig+ cells in the tumor samples. These subpopulations were overlapping and no single antibody recognized all the tumor cells. However, combinations of antibodies seemed to capture total tumor in both cases. In some instances, the percentage of tumor stained by a single mAb varied over time, and differed between lymph nodes sampled at the same time. Because a single species of Id protein was used to generate mAb in each case, it appears that the antibodies were directed against idiotopes variably shared by different populations within each tumor, and this was confirmed by crossblocking studies. Tumor cells from one patient were fused to a nonsecreting heteromyeloma line K6H6/B5, and most of the resulting hybrids secreted Id protein. Four mAb were used to screen the Id proteins secreted by these hybrids, and 11 different variants (16 maximal) were found. Southern blot analysis of rearranged Ig genes was done in two hybrids and biopsy material. Identically rearranged light-chain genes were seen but it appeared as though extensive somatic variation had occurred in heavy chain genes. These studies indicate that: striking Id variation can exist at diagnosis in untreated patients, the percentage of tumor represented by an individual variant may change with time and may differ between tumor sampled from different anatomical locations, and somatic variation appears to be responsible for the observed heterogeneity. Although this degree of variation makes anti-Id antibody therapy more difficult, appropriate combinations of mAb should be more efficacious than single antibodies in such cases.