Interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) regulates the growth, differentiation, and recirculation of normal and malignant B lymphocytes. In this report we examine the effects of IFN-alpha on the distribution of the cytoskeletal protein spectrin in peripheral blood B lymphocytes from normal donors and patients diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and hairy cell leukemia (HCL). Exposure of normal and leukemic B cells to IFN-alpha in vitro was shown by immunofluorescence microscopy to cause a dose-dependent increase in the percentage of cells containing discrete focal accumulations of spectrin, ie, a single large aggregate or cap-like structure near the plasma membrane. Although the magnitude of this effect was variable among individual patient samples, in some experiments IFN-alpha induced a fourfold increase in the percentage of leukemic B cells exhibiting focal accumulations of spectrin. Spectrin reorganization induced by IFN-alpha was abrogated by the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide. In addition, IFN-alpha increased the total cellular content of spectrin in B-CLL cells by approximately twofold to fourfold. Finally, a role for protein kinase C in mediating the effects of IFN-alpha on spectrin's organization is implicated by studies in which calphostin C inhibited the IFN-induced focal accumulation of spectrin. Taken together, these studies suggest that the immunomodulatory activities of IFN-alpha in normal and malignant B cells involve a change in the organization of the spectrin- based cytoskeleton.