Indirect antigenic stimulation by H. pylori-specific T cells is implicated in the development of low-grade gastric lymphoma of mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT), however, the role of direct antigen stimulation is unknown. To study the role of direct antigen stimulation in MALT lymphomagenesis and its relationship with the pathogenesis of distinct pathological lesions, which represent different stages of the tumour progression, we cloned and sequenced the rearranged immunoglobulin (Ig) heavy chain gene in three low-grade (two from the lung, one from the stomach) and one high-grade (from the stomach) cases. In the low-grade gastric case, we studied the Ig sequence in primary as well as its disseminated and recurrent tumours. In the high-grade gastric case, we analysed the Ig sequence in tumour cell populations microdissected from the residual diffuse low-grade lesions, diffuse high-grade areas from follicles colonized by high-grade blasts. Compared with the published germline sequences, the heavy chain variable (VH) genes of three MALT lymphomas, in which the putative germline was identified, contained frequent somatic mutations, showing a much higher ratio of replacement/silent mutations in the complementarity determining regions (CDRs) than the framework regions (FRs). Ongoing mutation as indicated by intraclonal variation of the Ig sequence clearly existed in low-grade tumour including its dissemination and recurrence, but was not evident in high-grade tumour cell populations including those microdissected from independent colonized follicles. In addition, the germlines of VH genes used by the three MALT lymphomas are frequently found in autoreactive antibodies. Our results suggest that MALT lymphoma derives from postgerminal centre memory B cells, possibly autoreactive B cell clones, and that direct antigen stimulation may play an important role in the clonal expansion of low-grade MALT lymphoma.