Frozen sections of human fetal spleen from 12 to 20 wk gestation were examined by using polyclonal antibodies to Ig isotypes, monoclonal antibodies to HLA class II subregion locus products, B and T cells, and follicular dendritic cells. Scattered lymphoid cells in spleen sections from fetuses of 12 to 13 wk gestational age expressed IgM but not IgD. The appearance of lymphoid cells expressing IgD occurred at 14 to 15 wk before the formation of loose clusters of B cells at 16 wk. IgD expression was associated mainly with cells in these clusters, which by 17 wk had become definite follicles. Follicular dendritic cells were not detectable until 20 wk. OKT3-positive T cells were not detected until 17 wk, and at 20 wk constituted 5% of the nucleated cell population. HLA-DR- and DP-positive lymphocytes and macrophages were detectable in fetal spleen from 12 wk onward; DR was expressed on more cells than DP, and the numbers of cells stained by HLA-DR-specific monoclonal antibodies exceeded the number of Ig-positive cells in all spleens examined. HLA-DQ was expressed by consistently fewer cells than HLA-DR and -DP in all spleens tested. The small number of DQ-positive cells in spleens from 12- to 13-wk fetuses had the morphology of macrophages; HLA-DQ expression by lymphoid cells followed a similar pattern to IgD expression and was associated mainly with follicular lymphocytes. It could be demonstrated by double-labeling experiments that all follicular IgM-positive cells in 17- to 20-wk spleens expressed HLA-DP, DQ, and DR antigens: IgM-positive cells in 12- to 16-wk spleens and interfollicular IgM-positive cells in 17- to 20-wk spleens all expressed HLA-DR, but only 59% and 43% expressed DP and DQ, respectively. Ninety-one to 100% of IgD-positive cells in all spleens examined expressed HLA-DQ in addition to DR and DP. In these experiments IgD-negative, DQ-positive cells had the morphologic appearance characteristic of macrophages. These data suggest that class II antigens are differentially expressed on developing lymphoid cells; DR and DP expression occurring in the earliest spleens examined, with expression of DP on a subpopulation of DR-positive cells; IgD and DQ expression appears to be coincident on maturing B cells as they begin to form follicles. An immunoregulatory role for HLA-DQ in B cell development is implicated and remains to be fully investigated.