In classical Hodgkin lymphoma the malignant Hodgkin/Reed-Sternberg (HRS) cells characteristically constitute only a small minority of the tumour load. Their origin has been debated for decades, but on the basis of rearrangement and somatic hypermutations of their immunoglubulin (Ig) genes, HRS cells are now ascribed to the B-cell lineage. Nevertheless, phenotypically HRS cells have lost their B cell identity: they usually lack common B cell-specific surface markers such as CD19 and CD79a as well as Ig gene transcripts. Here we demonstrate that Ig promoters as well as both intronic and 3' enhancer sequences are transcriptionally inactive in HRS cell lines. This inactivity correlates with either reduced levels or even a complete lack of several B cell-specific transcription factors required for their expression: Oct-2, OBF-1, PU.1, E47/E12, PAX-5 and EBF. Moreover, we demonstrate that PU.1 and PAX-5 are significantly down-regulated in HRS cells in pathological specimens from primary tumour tissues. However, forced expression of these transcription factors can activate regulatory sequences of silenced B cell marker genes, and in one instance also transcription from a silenced endogenous locus. Thus, HRS cells are dedifferentiated B cells with global down-regulation of B cell-specific genes.