The immunoglobulin heavy chain variable region is encoded as three separate libraries of elements in germ-line DNA: VH, D and JH. To examine the order and regulation of their joining, we have developed assays that distinguish their various combinations and have used the assays to study tumor cell analogs of B-lymphoid cells as well as normal B-lymphoid cells. Abelson murine leukemia virus (A-MuLV) transformed fetal liver cells - the most primitive B-lymphoid cell analog available for analysis - generally had DJH rearrangements at both JH loci. These lines continued DNA rearrangement in culture, in most cases by joining a VH gene segment to an existing DJH complex with the concomitant deletion of intervening DNA sequences. None of these lines or their progeny showed evidence of VHD or DD rearrangements. Heavy chain-producing tumor lines, representing more mature stages of the B-cell pathway, and normal B-lymphocytes had either two VHDJH rearrangements or a VHDJH plus a DJH rearrangement at their two heavy chain loci; they also showed no evidence of VHD or DD rearrangements. These results support an ordered mechanism of variable gene assembly during B-cell differentiation in which D-to-JH rearrangements generally occur first and on both chromosomes followed by VH-to-DJH rearrangements, with both types of joining processes occurring by intrachromosomal deletion. The high percentage of JH alleles remaining in the DJH configuration in heavy chain-producing lines and, especially, in normal B-lymphocytes supports a regulated mechanism of heavy chain allelic exclusion in which a VHDJH rearrangement, if productive, prevents an additional VH-to-DJH rearrangement.