Nucleosomes released spontaneously in short-term culture from murine spleen cells have a significant immunoproliferative effect in vitro, including the stimulation of anti-DNA antibody responses. The present studies show that during short-term cultures, tonsil lymphoid cells also undergo spontaneous apoptosis revealed morphologically (electron microscopy) by the appearance of changes in nuclear chromatin, typical of apoptosis and similar to morphologic changes of apoptosis in cultured normal splenic lymphocytes. This process is followed by the release, in the greater than 30-kDa cell free supernatant fraction, of core histones (H2A, H2B, H3, H4) and low molecular weight DNA (approx 160 bp) constituents of nucleosomes. The greater than 30-kDa tonsil lymphocyte cell-free supernatant material containing the constituents of core nucleosomes, as well as the greater than 30-kDa supernatant fractions of tonsil cell lysates harvested at the same time, had a significant immunoproliferative effect on human or murine lymphocytes, increasing both DNA and immunoglobulin synthesis (protein A plaque-forming cells). Thus the release of immunoproliferative nucleosomes form dying human lymphoid cells provides an autocrine lymphocyte stimulatory network which may be important in immunoproliferative disorders and in normal cell turnover. Apoptosis in vivo may also provide a potential source for the circulating nucleosomal DNA identified in plasma in some systemic lupus erythematosus patients as well as contributing to increased polyclonal B lymphocyte stimulation and autoantibody responses in this disorder.