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BACKGROUND: The developmental stage from which stems the malignant B cell population in Burkitt's lymphoma (BL) is unclear. An approach to answering this question is provided by the sequence analysis of rear-ranged immunoglobulin (Ig) variable region (V) genes from BL for evidence of somatic mutations, together with a phenotypic characterization. As somatic hypermutation of Ig V region genes occurs in germinal center B cells, somatically mutated Ig genes are found in germinal center B cells and their descendents. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Rearranged V kappa region genes from 10 kappa-expressing sporadic and endemic BL-derived cell lines (9 IgM and 1 IgG positive) and three kappa-expressing endemic BL biopsy specimens were amplified by polymerase chain reaction and sequenced. In addition, VH region gene sequences from these cell lines were determined. RESULTS: All BL cell lines and the three biopsy specimens carried somatically mutated V region genes. The average mutation frequency of rearranged V kappa genes from eight BL cell lines established from sporadic BL was 1.8%. A higher frequency (6%) was found in five endemic cases (three biopsy specimens and two BL cell lines). CONCLUSIONS: The detection of somatic mutations in the rearranged V region genes suggests that both sporadic and endemic BL represent a B-cell malignancy originating from germinal center B cells or their descendants. Interestingly, the mutation frequency detected in sporadic BL is in a range similar to that characteristic for IgM-expressing B cells in the human peripheral blood and for mu chain-expressing germinal center B cells, whereas the mutation frequency found in endemic BL is significantly higher.