Mucosal antibody defense depends on a complex cooperation between local B cells and secretory epithelia. Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue gives rise to B cells with striking J-chain expression that are seeded to secretory effector sites. Such preferential homing constitutes the biological basis for local production of polymeric immunoglobulin A (pIgA) and pentameric IgM with high affinity to the epithelial pIg receptor that readily can export these antibodies to the mucosal surface. This ultimate functional goal of mucosal B-cell differentiation appears to explain why the J chain is also expressed by IgG- and IgD-producing plasma cells (PCs) occurring at secretory tissue sites; these immunocytes may be considered as 'spin-offs' from early effector clones that through class switch are on their way to pIgA production. Abundant evidence supports the notion that intestinal PCs are largely derived from B cells initially activated in gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Nevertheless, insufficient knowledge exists concerning the relative importance of M cells, major histocompatibility complex class II-expressing epithelial cells, and professional antigen-presenting cells for the uptake, processing, and presentation of luminal antigens in GALT to accomplish the extensive and sustained priming and expansion of mucosal B cells. Likewise, it is unclear how the germinal center reaction in GALT so strikingly can promote class switch to IgA and expression of J chain. Although B-cell migration from GALT to the intestinal lamina propria is guided by rather well-defined adhesion molecules and chemokines/chemokine receptors, the cues directing preferential homing to different segments of the gut require better definition. This is even more so for the molecules involved in homing of mucosal B cells to secretory effector sites beyond the gut, and in this respect, the role of Waldever's ring (including the palatine tonsils and adenoids) as a regional inductive tissue needs further characterization. Data suggest a remarkable compartmentalization of the mucosal immune system that must be taken into account in the development of effective local vaccines to protect specifically the airways, eyes, oral cavity, small and large intestines, and urogenital tract.