We have developed a quantitative and sensitive flow cytometric method for the detection of human apoptotic lymphocytes that, unlike previously described assays, allows their identification in mixed populations of peripheral blood leukocytes as well as their immunophenotyping. Apoptotic lymphocytes are identified on the basis of peculiar light scatter changes, reflecting their smaller size and their modified nucleus/cytoplasm organization, and of the decreased expression of surface CD45 molecules. Based on these criteria, apoptotic lymphocytes generated by exposure to ionizing radiation can be easily distinguished from viable cells and from necrotic lymphocytes generated by treatment with antibody and complement. Using this assay, we reappraised the phenomenon of the in vitro apoptosis of lymphocytes from patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Lymphocytes from HIV patients, unlike those from normal HIV-negative subjects, undergo apoptosis upon simple in vitro culture. We found that the percentages of lymphocytes undergoing apoptosis were significantly higher in patients with low CD4 cell counts (< 400/microL) than in patients at earlier stages (> 400 CD4 cells/microL). However, phenotypic analysis disclosed that apoptotic lymphocytes generated in these cultures were mostly CD8+ T cells and CD19+ B cells. Thus, in contrast to what has been previously suggested, the phenomenon of in vitro lymphocyte apoptosis might not be pathogenetically related to the depletion of CD4+ T cells in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Nevertheless, it might represent an useful marker of disease progression. Our assay allows the analysis of unfractionated peripheral blood leukocytes and thus the identification of apoptotic lymphocytes circulating in vivo. Apoptotic lymphocytes could indeed be detected in the circulation of a patient with cancer shortly after high-dose cytotoxic chemotherapy. By contrast, no apoptotic lymphocytes could be detected in vivo in patients with early or advanced HIV infection.