A model substrate for the joining of Ig VH and DJH elements has been constructed in a retroviral vector carrying a selectable marker whose expression is independent of the arrangement of the resident Ig gene segments. The substrate was introduced into lymphoid and nonlymphoid cells, and site-specific recombination between the VH and DJH elements was monitored by a direct hybridization assay. Joining of the exogenous gene segments was observed in cell lines representative of three distinct stages in early B cell differentiation. Rearrangement was not observed in three cell lines derived from mature B cells, or in a fibroblastoid cell line. The VH and DJH elements were initially arranged so that the VH-DJH junction and the recombined flanking sequences could be recovered after rearrangement. By molecular cloning and nucleotide sequence determination, VH-DJH junctions formed upon rearrangement of the substrate were found to resemble closely similar junctions in functional H chain genes. The joining of VH and DJH elements was observed to be asymmetric; loss of nucleotides occurred at the coding joints, but not at the junctions between flanking sequences. Our results suggest that Ig H and L chain gene segments are joined by a common mechanism that is more active in B cell precursors than in mature B cells. These observations provide further evidence that the rearrangement of Ig gene segments occurs by a nonreciprocal recombinational mechanism. The model substrate described here is likely to be of use in defining the nucleotide sequences that mediate rearrangement and in examining the developmental specificity of this process.