The cell-free supernatants of normal spleen and thymus lymphocytes in short-term culture release low molecular weight (LMW) DNA protein molecules that have an immunoproliferative effect (polyclonal B cell activation) in vitro. We have determined that the protein-LMW DNA complexes responsible for these effects are nucleosomal constituents of chromatin, since the mitogenically active fractions of these cell-free supernatants contain the constituents of core histones (H3, H2A, H2B, H4) together with LMW DNA (140-180 bp), and since the immunoproliferative effects of these cell-free supernatants could be mimicked by various other nucleoprotein preparations (including calf thymus and chicken erythrocyte nucleosomes). The spontaneous cellular release of cleaved chromatin constituents in vitro can be attributed to a form of programmed cell death termed apoptosis, since the cultured spleen cells exhibited (a) morphologic evidence consistent with this process by electron microscopy, and (b) evidence of intracellular cleavage of chromatin which, like apoptosis, could be blocked with ZnSO4. This resulted in inhibition of the extracellular release of nucleosomal constituents as well as the immunoproliferative effects of the cell-free supernatants. The immunoproliferative effect of nucleosomes released from cells during apoptosis could be responsible for previously observed spontaneous in vitro anti-DNA and anti-histone antibody responses of murine spleen cells, and in vivo in normal lymphoid tissues, resulting in renewed cellular proliferation after cell death. In pathological states, this could result in abnormal polyclonal B cell proliferation and autoantibody formation.