A major feature of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is disordered B-cell function, which paradoxically includes both pathologic overactivity (elevated serum antibodies, lymphadenopathy, and increased risk for lymphoma) and underactivity (impaired antibody immunity, particularly to bacterial polysaccharide antigens). B-cell immune dysfunction contributes significantly to HIV-related morbidity and also represents an obstacle to eventual definitive treatment by anti-HIV immunization. Our laboratory has recently identified in normal B-cell populations certain VH gene subfamilies with a developmentally regulated pattern of utilization. In particular, B cells bearing rearranged VH3L were rare in the germinal center but uniformly abundant in the blood and lymphoid mantle zone. We used this index gene subfamily as a clonal criterion for the pattern of B-cell development in lymphocytes of HIV-positive individuals. In a series of 19 HIV- positive subjects, a striking deficit of VH3L B cells was observed; in contrast, none of the 16 normal subjects showed this abnormality. Other VH subfamilies (VH1N, VH4/6, and VH5N) were unaffected in the HIV- positive patients. This VH3L clonal deficit and other recent phenotype and histopathologic findings suggest that the general B-cell dysfunction in HIV is due to a discreet maturational arrest at the germinal center stage.