In mice and chickens, J chain appears to be expressed only in activated B cells and plasma cells. In humans, studies based mainly on transformed cells suggest that J chain expression may initiate during earlier stages in B lineage differentiation. In the present study, we isolated a series of hematopoietic subpopulations from human fetal and adult tissues by immunofluorescence cell sorting and examined each subpopulation for J chain expression by reverse transcriptase-PCR. In fetal and adult bone marrow, J chain transcripts were detected at all stages of B lineage differentiation, including the progenitor (CD34+/CD19-) and pro-B (CD34+/CD19+) cell subpopulations. J chain mRNA was also detected during fetal thymocyte development: double negative (CD4-/CD8-) through single positive (CD4+ or CD8+) cell subpopulations. The J chain message was not detected in peripheral CD3+ T cells, CD14+ monocytes, and CD56+ NK cells from either fetal or adult samples. The nucleotide sequence of J chain PCR products from CD34+/CD19- bone marrow progenitors and CD4+/CD8- thymocytes proved identical to the previously reported sequence of functionally spliced J chain mRNA. These results suggest that the J chain gene is transcriptionally active during early stages of both B cell and T cell differentiation, before the expression of their respective Ag receptors.