Immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization with a synthetic oligonucleotide probe were used to compare the topographical distribution of BCL-2 proto-oncogenic protein with that of its messenger RNA (mRNA) in normal lymphoid tissues, follicular lymphomas, and lymphoma-derived cell lines. In normal lymph nodes, BCL-2 protein was most abundant in the small lymphocytes of primary lymphoid follicles and the mantle zones of secondary follicles, virtually absent within germinal centers, and of variable abundance in many interfollicular cells. In contrast, the distribution of BCL-2 mRNA was roughly reciprocal to that of the protein with intense hybridization signal in germinal centers and almost none in mantle zones. Discordant BCL-2 RNA and protein levels were also observed in tonsillar epithelial cells and cortical thymocytes. Concordant and abundant expression of BCL-2 mRNA and protein was detected in biopsy tissues and cell lines from t(14;18)-carrying lymphomas. The contrasting distributions of BCL- 2 protein and RNA in normal lymphoid tissues suggest that translational and posttranslational control mechanisms play a significant role in regulating BCL-2 protein levels in germinal center cells, epithelial cells, and cortical thymocytes. Concordant BCL-2 mRNA and protein levels in follicular lymphomas suggest that translational control mechanisms may be disrupted as part of the sequence of genetic changes that transforms normal lymphoid cells into neoplastic follicular lymphoma cells.