We have investigated the relationship between chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), hairy cell leukemia (HCL), and different normal B cell subsets: Mrbc+, T1+ and slgM+ tonsil cells; germinal center; mantle zone; and peripheral blood B lymphocytes. Both malignant and normal cells were incubated in vitro with the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoyl- phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) for 72 hours and the morphology, cytochemical profile, and surface markers were evaluated. The results show that CLL cells TPA-induced become indistinguishable from HCL by four independent criteria: the morphology; the cytoplasmic tartrate resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP) enzyme activity; the membrane positivity with anti- Leu M5 (SHCL3); and anti-Tac monoclonal antibodies which, in the uninduced state, react only with HCL. The features of TRAP and Tac positivity are also expressed (though in variable degree) by different normal B cell populations activated with TPA or pokeweed mitogen (PWM). It is concluded that HCL might represent an aberrantly activated variant of CLL (or of a CLL-related disorder).