IgM is secreted in two functional polymeric forms. Secreted IgM was originally thought to be exclusively a pentameric molecule containing J (joining) chain, but many B cells also secrete hexameric IgM lacking J chain. Hexameric IgM may play an important role in the immune system, since it is up to 20 times more active than pentameric IgM in initiating the complement cascade. The predominant polymeric form of IgM secreted by B cell lines, either pentameric or hexameric, correlates with the concentration of J chain present during polymerization, and cells that express high levels of J chain secrete mostly IgM pentamers. The B cell lymphoma WEHI-231 does not express J chain, and the majority of its secreted IgM is polymerized as hexamers. When a J chain-encoding cDNA was expressed in these cells, the secreted IgM was found to be almost exclusively pentameric. However, although the expression of J chain dramatically altered the phenotype of the IgM secreted by these cells, it had little effect on their secretory rate. We conclude that J chain regulates the structure and function of the IgM polymers secreted by B cells, but it is not necessary for either IgM polymerization or secretion.