Fibroblasts have an important structural role in the spleen, as they provide a scaffold of extracellular matrix in which cells of the immune system reside. Aside from their vague recognition as "stromal" or "reticular" components of the spleen, these cells have not been characterized. In this study, normal fibroblast lines from mouse [B6D2(F1)] spleen were established. The fibroblast phenotype of these lines was confirmed by their morphology, expression of vimentin, as well as their lack of epithelial and endothelial cell markers, their failure to display the hematopoietic marker CD45, and their inability to phagocytize. Interestingly, 50-65% of the splenic fibroblasts expressed the Thy-1 antigen, while a subpopulation of Thy-1-negative fibroblasts existed. FACS on the basis of Thy-1, as well as limiting dilution cloning, yielded stable lines and clones of Thy-1+ and Thy-1- splenic fibroblasts. Phenotypic characterization revealed that both subsets synthesized collagen and expressed class I MHC, ICAM-1, VCAM-1, and CD44 constitutively. However, intriguing differences existed between the fibroblast subpopulations. Thy-1+ splenic fibroblasts produced significantly greater levels of IL-6 than did their Thy-1- counterparts. After treatment with IFN-gamma (150 U/ml, 72 hr), Thy-1-, but not Thy-1+, splenic fibroblasts expressed class II MHC and presented antigen to an I-A(b)-restricted T cell line. This suggests that the Thy-1- fibroblasts may present antigen to T lymphocytes in vivo under inflammatory conditions. Thus, splenic fibroblasts are a heterogeneous and dynamic cell type poised in an immunologically relevant location to interact with bone marrow-derived cells under normal and fibrotic conditions.