Germinal centers (GCs) are histologically defined areas where B cells undergo extensive proliferation and maturation, or die of apoptosis. GC B cells isolated from human tonsils can be phenotypically identified by expression of peanut agglutinin (PNA)-binding sites and can be further divided into subpopulations based on their expression of CD77. To assess the functional potential of GC B cells, we studied CD77+ PNA+ B cells isolated from tonsils by examining their differentiation status and their ability to proliferate in vitro to various cytokines and costimulants. We found that CD77+ GC B cells are less differentiated than CD77- GC B cells; CD77+ GC B cells less frequently express cytoplasmic IgG and IgM, and spontaneously secrete less Ig compared to CD77- GC B cells. To identify conditions capable of inducing GC B cell proliferation, we examined IL-4, IL-2, IFN-γ, low molecular weight BCGF (LMW-BCGF), and an MLR supernatant along with costimulants such as anti-IgM antibody, Staphylococcus aureus Cowan I (SAC), PMA, and pokeweed mitogen (PWM). While non-GC B cells proliferate strongly in response to these stimuli, GC B cells did not proliferate. However, CD77+ as well as CD77- GC B cells mounted a rapid and strong proliferative response upon stimulation with IL-4, but only in the presence of anti-CD40 antibody. Moreover, although nine additional cytokines were examined, only IL-4 was capable of supporting CD77+ GC B cell proliferation in the presence of anti-CD40 antibody. When cells were stimulated with IL-4 and anti-CD40 antibody, we also found that IFN-γ consistently decreased the proliferative response of CD77+ GC B cells without affecting the response of non-GC B cells. Taken together, these data indicate that GC B cells have characteristic growth requirements and that IL-4 may be important for GC B cell growth in vivo. © 1992.