Interleukin-5 (IL-5) and IL-6 have both been reported to act as B-cell differentiation factors by stimulating activated B cells to secrete antibody. However, it has not been possible to directly compare the effects of these two lymphokines because of the lack of a suitable B-cell line capable of responding to both. We have identified a clonal, inducible B-cell lymphoma, CH12, that has this property. Both IL-5 and IL-6 can independently stimulate increases in steady-state levels of immunoglobulin and J-chain mRNA and proteins, and they both induce the differentiation of CH12 into high-rate antibody-secreting cells. Nevertheless, there are significant differences in the activities of these two lymphokines. First, while IL-6 acts only as a differentiation factor, IL-5 also augments the proliferation of CH12 cells. Second, the differentiation stimulated by IL-5 but not by IL-6 is partially inhibited by IL-4. Inhibition of IL-5-induced differentiation was not at the level of IL-5 receptor expression, since IL-4 did not inhibit IL-5-induced proliferation. Third, IL-5 but not IL-6 stimulated increased mouse mammary tumor proviral gene expression in CH12 cells. These results demonstrate that while both IL-5 and IL-6 may act as differentiation factors for B cells, they induce differentiation by using at least partially distinct molecular pathways. Our results also establish that B cells characteristic of a single stage of development can independently respond to IL-4, IL-5, and IL-6.