A panel of monoclonal antibodies to monomorphic determinants of the MHC class II subregion locus products: DP, DR and DQ, was used to investigate the expression of these antigens on early lymphocytes and macrophages from human fetal liver (13-20 weeks), placenta (16 weeks and term) and cord blood, in relation to the class II phenotype of cells from adult tonsil and peripheral blood. Fetal liver sections and cell suspensions showed differential expression of class II antigens. DP was expressed at a higher frequency (11.0% of nucleated cells) than DR on lymphoid cells and macrophages from fetal liver, and DQ was either absent or expressed on less than 0.3% of nucleated cells. Consistent with this finding, DP but not DR or DQ antigens were observed on vascular elements and macrophages in the villi of 16-week placenta. At term, all three subregion locus products were expressed. Adult tonsil and peripheral blood B lymphocytes expressed DP, DR and DQ antigens with similar frequency; however, DQ was expressed at a lower frequency than DP and DR on cord blood B lymphocytes. In contrast, 30-50% macrophages from cord blood and adult peripheral blood expressed DP and DR, but fewer (5% and 18%, respectively) expressed DQ. These data suggest that class II antigens are expressed in the sequence DP, DR, DQ on developing lymphocytes. A similar sequence is suggested for macrophages.