The expression of CD38 by B cells chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) was studied in 20 untreated patients. The cells expressed abundant CD38 (relative fluorescence intensity range, 6 to 15) in 6 cases (group I patients), whereas CD38 expression was low to absent (relative fluorescence intensity range, 0 to 3) in the remaining cases (group II patients). Exposure of the cells from group I patients to goat antihuman mu chain antibodies (Ga mu-ab) resulted in the elevation of intracellular free Ca2+ concentration([Ca2+]i) followed by apoptosis. In contrast, exposure of group II cells to Ga mu-ab was not followed by increased levels of [Ca2+]i, programmed cell death or cell proliferation. No differences in the expression of surface IgM were noted in the two groups of B-CLL cells. Normal peripheral blood B cells, which expressed low to absent CD38, were capable of mobilizing [Ca2+]i and of proliferating after exposure to Ga mu-ab. The collected data suggest that, although group I B-CLL cells were able to transduce the signals delivered by IgM crosslinking, this pathway was severely impaired in group II B-CLL cells. However, unlike that observed in normal circulating B cells, stimulation of group I cells with Ga mu-ab resulted in apoptosis rather than proliferation. CD38 did not appear to be directly involved in [Ca2+]i mobilization induced by Ga mu-ab in group I B-CLL cells because their exposure to anti-CD38 monoclonal antibodies failed to cause [Ca2+]i mobilization or to block the [Ca2+]i response induced by Ga mu-ab. These data indicate that CD38 expression identified a particular subset of B-CLL cells with defined functional properties, including the propensity to undergo apoptosis.