B chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) are clonal populations of mIgM+ or mIgM+/mIgD+ CD5+ B cells that appear to be arrested in the follicular mantle-zone B-cell stage. Functional analyses have shown two groups of B-CLL that can be distinguished based on their capacity to proliferate in response to B-cell antigen receptor complex (BCR) cross- linking. To investigate the molecular basis for this phenomenon, we have analyzed both architecture and functional properties of BCR complexes on these two groups of B-CLL. Both groups were found to express structurally similar BCR. However, protein tyrosine kinase (PTK) activity associated with and specific for BCR constituents was strongly diminished in nonresponsive B-CLL. Moreover, the PTK-dependent assembly of Shc/Grb2 complexes, which may couple the BCR to p21ras, was absent in these B-CLL. Finally, of all PTKs tested, the expression of PTK syk was found to be considerably lower in nonresponsive B-CLL. Thus, absence of mitogenic responses upon BCR cross-linking in particular B-CLL was found to be strictly correlated with diminished induction of BCR-associated PTK activity and lower levels of PTK syk. Because nonresponsive B-CLL closely resembles tolerant autoreactive B cells both functionally and biochemically, distinction between B-CLL with respect to functional properties in vitro may be determined by differences in antigen encounter in vivo.