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The lpr gene induces marked lymphoproliferation characterized by the massive accumulation of T cells of an unusual phenotype and concomitant autoimmune disease. To clarify the mechanism of the lpr effect, bone marrow cells from B6-lpr/lpr (Ly-1.2) and B6-+/+ (Ly-1.1) mice were transferred into lethally irradiated B6-lpr/lpr mice. As has been previously reported, recipients of the B6-lpr/lpr bone marrow showed the typical lpr phenotype with marked lymphadenopathy, splenomegaly and increased levels of autoantibodies; while the recipients of B6-+/+ bone marrow had normal sized lymph nodes and spleen and no autoantibodies. A third group of mice received an equal mixture of bone marrow cells from the B6-lpr/lpr and B6-+/+ donors. These mice showed both lymphadenopathy and autoantibody production comparable to that of recipients of the B6-lpr/lpr marrow alone. Immunofluorocytometric analysis of the lymphoid populations in these mixed bone marrow recipients established that the T cells from the lpr/lpr and +/+ donors were equivalently represented in the peripheral blood and thymus. In striking contrast, the T cells that accumulated in abnormally large numbers in the lymph nodes were almost entirely from the lpr donor. Their surface phenotype was Thy-1+(dull), Ly-1.2+(dull), Lyt-2-, L3T4-, 9F3+, and 3A1+, which is consistent with that found in intact lpr mice. These results indicate that the lpr gene causes an intrinsic defect directly within the T cells that accumulate in large numbers in lpr mice. In addition, the presence of the +/+ T cells cannot prevent the expression of the lpr abnormalities.