The contribution of plasma membrane 5'-nucleotidase (E.C. 18.104.22.168) to intracellular purine degradation and release was evaluated in cultured human lymphoblasts. B-lymphoblasts and T-lymphoblasts are characterized by high and low levels of plasma membrane 5'-nucleotidase activity, respectively. After radiolabeling of the cellular adenine nucleotide pools with [8-14C]adenine, deoxyglucose-induced purine nucleotide degradation resulted in a 2-2.5 times greater release of cellular radioactivity from the B-lymphoblasts than from the T-lymphoblasts. Specific inhibition of plasma membrane 5'-nucleotidase with 50 microM alpha, beta-methylene adenosine diphosphate (AMPCP) did not decrease purine release during deoxyglucose-induced nucleotide degradation. Similarly, the inhibition of B-lymphoblast membrane 5-nucleotidase did not alter the incorporation of [8-14C]adenine into the nucleotide pool. Therefore, to explain the relatively high release of purine nucleotide degradation products in B-lymphoblasts when compared with T-lymphoblasts, cytoplasmic 5'-nucleotidase activity was investigated in these cell lines. B-lymphoblasts have seven times more cytoplasmic 5'-nucleotidase activity for dAMP and two to three times more activity for other purine nucleoside 5'-monophosphates than do T-lymphoblasts at pH 7.4. Membrane and cytoplasmic nucleotidase activities are produced by different enzymes that can be distinguished by differences in pH optima, Michaelis constants for purine substrates, divalent cation requirements, and susceptibilities to AMPCP inhibition. The data suggest that plasma membrane 5'-nucleotidase hydrolyzes extracellular nucleoside 5'-monophosphates only. Cytoplasmic 5'-nucleotidase most likely regulates the degradation of intracellular nucleoside 5'-monophosphates and may be responsible for the increased purine release observed in B-lymphoblasts.