In osteoarthritis (OA), the synovial tissue exhibits a nonfollicular inflammatory infiltration with a characteristic arrangement of lymphocytes and plasma cells. These arrangements are either small perivascular aggregates with plasma cells surrounding the lymphocytes or small groups of plasma cells, located in the vicinity of small blood vessels. These patterns suggest that B lymphocytes directly differentiate into plasma cells. To understand the B-cell response in OA, we analyzed the V(H) genes from B cells of synovial tissue of nine OA patients (average age, 71.5+/-10.5 years; six female and three male). V(H) gene repertoires were determined from RNA prepared from tissue cryosections and from DNA of single isolated B lymphocytes and plasma cells. The inflammatory infiltrate was analyzed immunohistochemically by detecting CD20, Ki-M4 (follicular dendritic cells), CD4, IgG, IgM, IgA, Ki-67, and by simultaneous demonstration of the plasma-cell-specific antigen CD138 (syndecan-1) and factor VIII. The molecular data demonstrate B cells with a high number of somatic mutations (average, 16.5 to 19.8), and high ratios of replacement to silent mutations in the small lymphocytic/plasmacellular aggregates of OA. In the tissue cryosections, the values of the sigmaR/sigmaS at the complementarity determining regions were 5.3 and 2.0 in the framework regions. For both the isolated B lymphocytes and plasma cells, the value of this ratio in the complementarity determining regions was 3.5. In the framework regions, the values of this ratio were 2.0 for the isolated B cells and 1.8 for the plasma cells. B lymphocytes and plasma cells exhibited a distribution not described thus far. Two patterns of B-cell distribution could be observed: (a) Centrally located CD20+ B and CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes were surrounded directly by IgG (predominantly) or IgA and IgM plasma cells. No proliferating Ki-67-positive cells and no follicular dendritic cells (germinal centers) could be detected in the aggregates; (b) Plasma cells (predominantly IgG) were located directly near endothelial cells of small blood vessels. The finding of highly mutated V(H) genes in B lymphocytes and the characteristic arrangement of B lymphocytes and plasma cells suggests that B cells, which participate in OA synovialitis, have undergone germinal center reaction at different sites. This may explain the low inflammatory infiltration without germinal centers in OA, which is a feature of this primarily degenerative joint disease.