Tonsillar germinal center and immunoglobulin M+ (IgM+)IgD+ B cells as well as peripheral blood (PB) CD5+ and CD5- (conventional) B cells from a 4-yr-old child were isolated and nucleotide sequences of expressed Ig heavy chain variable regions encoded by VH4 gene family members were determined from amplified cDNA. Whereas both tonsillar IgM+IgD+ cells and the majority of IgM-expressing CD5+ and CD5- PB B cells showed no or little somatic mutation, tonsillar germinal center (GC) B cells and IgG-expressing PB B cells carried a high load of somatic mutations in their V region genes. This suggests that somatically mutated memory B cells which have switched isotype accumulate in the PB already at young age. Their frequency seems to increase with age. On the other hand, the antibody repertoire of tonsillar IgM+IgD+ B cells and the majority of IgM-expressing PB B cells is determined by germline-encoded specificities and by generation of variability in the complementary determining region III through VH-DH-JH recombination. A fraction of IgM-bearing PB B cells carries somatically mutated V region genes and probably represents GC-derived B cells which have left the GC at an early stage of the GC reaction without undergoing isotype switching. 10 VH4 germline genes were found to be expressed. Three gene segments were overrepresented in the sequence collection (35 of 50 clones): VH4.21 (30%), V71-4 (20%), and 3D279D (20%). It appears that most potentially functional VH4 germline genes are expressed in peripheral B cells. Some members of this VH gene family are clearly overrepresented over others.

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