Human B lymphocytes undergo distinct phenotypic changes following activation with antigen and polyclonal mitogens. Increasing interest has focused on the unique subpopulation of B cells that expresses the CD5 antigen. In this study, we examined the signals that induce the expression of CD5 on normal splenic B cells. Only 12-O- tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) induced CD5 expression on highly purified splenic B cells, whereas anti-immunoglobulin (anti-Ig), Epstein-Barr virus, anti-CD20, recombinant interleukin-1 (rIL-1), rIL- 2, rIL-4, recombinant interferon-gamma (rINF-gamma), and B-cell growth factor all failed to induce CD5 expression. The expression of CD5 was detected on the cell surface by 48 hours and decreased by 96 hours. Dual-fluorochrome analysis demonstrated that the CD5+ B cells coexpressed the B-cell activation antigens B5, IL-2 receptor, and CD23, thereby providing phenotypic evidence that this B-cell subpopulation is activated. In vitro studies of dual-fluorochrome-sorted, TPA-stimulated splenic B cells demonstrated significantly greater tritiated thymidine incorporation and Ig secretion by the CD20+ CD5- cells than by the CD20+ CD5+ subset. These phenotypic and functional studies are consistent with the notion that TPA-induced CD5+ B cells are a subset of in vitro activated B lymphocytes.