Monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) specific for autoantibody associated cross-reactive idiotypes (CRIs) frequently recognize the Igs of neoplastic B cells in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and/or Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia. Very little is known regarding the normal B cells expressing CRIs (CRI-positive B cells). Using a variety of MoAbs against CRIs we investigated the distribution and topographic localization of CRI-positive B cells in normal adult human lymphoid tissues. We found that CRI-positive B cells represent a significant B-cell subpopulation expressing surface IgM (>90%), IgG (~5%), or IgA (~2%). CRI-positive B cells are homogeneously distributed throughout all lymphoid tissues, accounting for 10% to 15% of all B lymphocytes, with the exception of the thymus, in which they represent the predominant B cell population. Immunophenotypic studies showed (1) that a small subpopulation (3.7% ± 0.8%) of CRI-positive B cells are activated in vivo, based on CD25 and CD38 antigen expression; and (2) that approximately 50% of CRI-positive B cells express the 67-Kd pan-T-lymphocyte CD5 antigen, suggesting that the CRI-positive B-cell subset and the recently described CD5-positive B-cell subset are closely related. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that CRI-positive B cells produce oligo or polyreactive Igs, which are a characteristic feature of CD5-positive B cells, and also by the fact that both B-cell subpopulations appear to use similar and restricted Ig V(H) gene family members.