The non-Hodgkin's lymphomas (NHLs) are a heterogeneous group of human lymphoid tumors, primarily of B cell lineage, which appear to represent arrested stages in B lymphocyte differentiation. Control of cell proliferation is a fundamentally important but poorly understood area of study in these tumors. We have studied a representative group of B cell NHLs to assess their potential for growth factor-mediated proliferation in vitro. Our results show that purified monoclonal NHL B cells of the small cell (well-differentiated lymphocytic lymphoma, nodular poorly differentiated lymphocytic lymphoma, etc) type, that were positive for the human malignancy-associated nucleolar antigen could be stimulated by human B cell growth factor (BCGF) to proliferate in vitro. Other B cell activators such as insoluble anti-Ig and the mitogen protein A also could stimulate thymidine incorporation in the lymphoma cell populations. In vitro lymphoma cell growth could be maintained in the presence of the growth factor for up to five weeks. The large B cell type NHL, however, appeared to be refractory to in vitro stimulation by BCGF as well as other stimulators of normal B cells. These studies suggest that human B cell lymphoid tumors are not only phenotypically similar to their normal B lymphocyte counterparts, but are also sensitive in some cases, to the same types of immunoregulatory molecules that control normal lymphoid cell growth.