Idiotype (Id) 16/6 marks a variable (V) region structure that occurs frequently in the human immunoglobulin repertoire. The basis of the Id has been traced to a germline heavy chain gene segment, VH18/2 (VH26). To pursue the molecular basis for the frequency of Id 16/6, we have analyzed polymerase chain reaction-generated C mu, C gamma, and VH3 family V gene libraries derived from the circulating and tonsillar B cells of four normal individuals and from the B cells of two patients with active systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The frequency of VH18/2 in these libraries was compared with three control VH genes, VH56P1, VH21/28, and VHA57. Plaque lifts from C mu and C gamma VH cDNA libraries were screened with gene-specific oligonucleotide probes. The frequency of VH18/2 ranged from 4 to 10% of JH+ plaques (two of five times that of control VH genes). In four VH3 family-specific libraries derived from rearranged DNA, VH18/2 represented 19-33% of VH3+ plaques. Hybridizing VH18/2 plaques were 98-100% homologous to the germline VH gene; mutations when present were often in framework 3. Extensive variation was seen in the complementarity determining region 3 sequences of these rearranged V genes. The high frequency of VH18/2 expression in the B cell repertoire was confirmed by sequencing randomly picked JH+ plaques. In two patients with active SLE the frequency of use of VH18/2 was not greater than that observed in normal subjects. These results show that VH18/2 is overrepresented in the B cell repertoire of normal subjects and suggest that the immune repertoire may be dominated by relatively few V genes.