Although the immunophenotype of plasma cells (PCs) from multiple myeloma (MM) patients has been extensively explored, information on the phenotypic characteristics of PCs in monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) patients is scanty and frequently controversial. Thus, the question of whether or not PCs are phenotypically different in the two disorders and whether this criteria could be useful for the differential diagnosis between MGUS and MM remains to be explored. In the present study, the immunophenotypic profile of bone marrow PCs (BMPCs) from a group of 76 MGUS patients has been analyzed by flow cytometry and compared with that of BMPCs present in both MM patients (n = 65) and control subjects (n = 10). For that purpose, a large panel of monoclonal antibodies against PC-related antigens was used together with a sensitive methodology in which a minimum of 10(3) PCs were studied. In all MGUS cases studied, two clearly defined and distinct PC subpopulations could be identified. One PC subpopulation, population A (33 +/- 31% of total PCs), constantly displayed a high CD38 expression with low forward light scatter (FSC)/side light scatter (SSC) and was positive for CD19 and negative for CD56 (only a small proportion of these PCs were weakly positive for CD56). The other PC subpopulation, population B (67 +/- 31% of total PCs), showed the opposite pattern; the antigen CD56 was strongly positive and CD19 was constantly negative, and it showed a lower CD38 expression and higher FSC/SSC values than population A. Clonality studies (cytoplasmic light chain restriction, DNA content studies, and polymerase chain reaction assessment) confirmed the clonal nature of PCs from population B and the polyclonal origin of PCs from population A. Moreover, the polyclonal PCs from MGUS displayed a phenotypic profile identical to that found in PCs from healthy individuals. By contrast, clonal PCs from all MGUS patients displayed a similar antigenic profile to myelomatous PCs, with clear phenotypic differences with respect to normal PCs: lower intensity of CD38 expression and a variable reactivity for markers that were not expressed in normal PCs, such as CD28, CD117, and sIg. Although the presence of residual polyclonal PCs was a constant finding in MGUS patients, it was a rare event in MM and, when present (only 22% of MM cases), its frequency was significantly lower than that observed in MGUS (0.25% versus 32.9%, respectively; P < 0.0001). Only 1.5% of patients with MM had more than 3% of normal PCs, whereas 98% of patients with MGUS had more than 3%. Moreover, as shown by multivariate analysis, the number of residual polyclonal PCs was the most powerful single parameter for the discrimination between MGUS and MM patients at diagnosis, even when only stage I MM cases were considered.