Ag encounter will recruit Ag-specific cells from the pool of mature B lymphocytes in the spleen and activate them to perform effector functions: generation of Ab-forming cells (plasma cells) and presentation of Ag to T cells. We have compared the ability of mature follicular and marginal zone cells to develop into effector B cells. The generation of marginal zone B cells and their localization in the marginal sinus area are T cell and CD40 ligand independent, suggesting that they do not represent a postgerminal center population. Compared with mature recirculating follicular B cells, they express several characteristics of previous antigenic experience, including higher levels of B7.1 (CD80) and B7.2 (CD86) when freshly isolated and following in vitro stimulation. After a brief 6- to 8-h in vitro stimulation with LPS or anti-CD40 Abs, marginal zone B cells become potent APCs. In addition, their ability to proliferate and differentiate into plasma cells in response to low doses of T-independent polyclonal stimuli (LPS) is far greater than that of follicular B cells. These findings indicate a functional heterogeneity within splenic mature B lymphocytes, with marginal zone B cells having the capacity to generate effector cells in early stages of the immune response against particulate Ags scavenged efficiently in this special anatomical site.