We analyzed the reactivity and the structure of the VH and VL segments of two IgM monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) produced by spontaneously in vitro outgrowing cell lines, HBL-2 and HBL-3, established from two acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) patients with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-negative Burkitt's lymphoma (BL). These B-cell clones were representative of the respective neoplastic parental clones, as determined by immunophenotypic and molecular genetic analysis. The IgM MoAbs were highly specific for the i determinant on red blood cells (cold agglutinins), but bound none of the other eight self and nine foreign antigens (Ags) tested, including those most commonly recognized by natural antibodies or autoantibodies. Structural analysis showed that the IgM MoAb VH segment sequences were 93.5% and 84.2% identical with that of the germline VH4–21 gene, which encodes the vast majority of cold agglutinins that are specific for the i/l carbohydrate Ag and are produced under chronic lymphoproliferative conditions. The HBL-2 MoAb VH4–21 gene segment was juxtaposed with 20P3 and JH6 genes and paired with a V lambda 1 segment, the sequence of which was 95.5% identical to that of the germline Humlv117 gene; the HBL-3 MoAb VH4–21 gene segment was juxtaposed with DXP'1 and JH5 genes and paired with a V lambda 1 segment, the sequence of which was 86.7% identical to that of the germline Humlv1L1 gene. The high degree of conservation of the VH4–21 gene in the human population, the nature of the nucleotide differences in the expressed VH4–21 segments, and the presence of nucleotide substitutions in the HBL-2 and HBL-3 IgM MoAb JH and/or J lambda segments suggested that the MoAb V segments underwent a process of somatic hypermutation. This was formally shown in the HBL-3 MoAb VH segment, by differentially targeted polymerase chain reaction amplification of the HBL-3 MoAb-producing cell genomic DNA. In addition, cloning and sequencing of the genomic DNA from fibroblasts of the same patient whose neoplastic B cells gave rise to the HBL-3 cell line yielded a germline copy of the VH4–21 gene. Thus, the expression of VH4–21 gene products may be involved in a self Ag-driven process of clonal B-cell expansion and selection associated with BL in these AIDS patients.