The origin and exact stage of differentiation of the neoplastic cells that comprise hairy cell leukemia have remained uncertain. As Ig heavy and light chain genes must both undergo a DNA rearrangement during B-cell development but rarely do so within other hematopoietic lineages, we examined these genes in this leukemia. The neoplastic cells of all eight cases demonstrated rearranged heavy and light chain genes and, in two cases examined, contained the corresponding mRNA for heavy and light chain Ig. Consistent with this B-cell genotype, all cases displayed cell surface HLA-DR and B-cell-associated antigens. Unexpectedly, all cases demonstrated cell surface Tac antigen, which previously had been restricted predominantly to select T-cell malignancies and activated T cells. Prior studies suggested that the anti-Tac monoclonal antibody recognized a peptide associated with the binding of interleukin 2 (T-cell growth factor) in such T cells. Immunoprecipitation with anti-Tac and NaDodSO4/polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis revealed an antigen on leukemic hairy cells with a Mr of 53,000-57,000, identical in size to the receptor on activated T cells. This apparent biphenotypic status might reflect a transformation-associated expression of the Tac antigen in this leukemia. Alternatively, hairy cell leukemia may be a malignancy of a unique stage of normal B-cell differentiation in which the Tac antigen is expressed.