We have compared the distribution of lambda-light-chain variable-region (V lambda) subgroups among Ig lambda molecules found in the serum of normal individuals with that of monoclonal Ig lambda components obtained from patients with plasma cell and related immunoproliferative disorders. A panel of monoclonal antibodies specific for each of the major human V lambda subgroups--V lambda I, V lambda II, V lambda III, V lambda IV, V lambda VI, and V lambda VIII--was used in a highly sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to quantitate each of these populations. The mean distribution of Ig lambda I, Ig lambda II, Ig lambda III, Ig lambda IV, Ig lambda VI, and Ig lambda VIII molecules in serum specimens collected from 20 normal adults was approximately 40, 3, 43, 5, 5, and 3% of the total Ig lambda population, respectively. In contrast, that of monoclonal IgG, IgA, and IgD proteins and Bence Jones proteins obtained from patients with multiple myeloma and related gammopathies (n = 196) was approximately 27, 28, 39, 5, 0, and 1%, respectively. The percentage of monoclonal Ig lambda II components found in individuals with AL lambda amyloidosis (n = 41) was comparably increased to that seen in multiple myeloma and was even higher in patients with Waldenström's macroglobulinemia (n = 16), in whom 63% of the IgM lambda proteins were of the V lambda II subgroup. Also evidenced were differences in the distribution of other V lambda subgroups in the disease states: Most striking was the predominance (41%) of the V lambda VI subgroup among monoclonal lambda chains obtained from patients with AL amyloidosis and that this subgroup was found exclusively on amyloidosis-associated proteins. No Ig lambda VI-type myeloma- or macroglobulinemia-related proteins were identified. The observed alterations in V lambda subgroup distribution among "pathologic" monoclonal Igs were attributed to the particular disease and not related to the heavy-chain class. Our finding that certain V lambda subgroups are nonstochastically expressed in lambda-type multiple myeloma, AL amyloidosis, and Waldenström's macroglobulinemia provides evidence for abnormal VL gene usage in these disorders and, thus, furnishes new insight into their pathogenesis.