The Rel/NF-kappa B proteins, p50, p52, p65, c-Rel, and RelB, constitute a family of transcription factors involved in the positive regulation of a variety of genes during the immune response. Recently, it has been shown that RelB knockout mice have no dendritic cells (DC). An overexpression of p50 has been described in follicular dendritic cells (FDC). A constitutive NF-kappa B activity has been reported in mature macrophages. This led to the hypothesis that some of the Rel/NF-kappa B proteins were key nuclear factors in functions of accessory cells of the immune response. Therefore, we investigated in situ the nuclear localization of Rel/NF-kappa B proteins in accessory cells of the immune system by immunohistochemistry and double labeling by immunofluorescence from five normal human tonsils and five lymph nodes with follicular hyperplasia. Nuclear p65 and c-Rel proteins were found in all cell types including lymphocytes. In germinal centers GC, p50, p52, and RelB were found in the nuclei of FDC only and were not detected in the nuclei of CD68+ cells. In T cell areas, p50, p52, and RelB were found in the nuclei of HLA-DR+ cells with an antigen-presenting cell (APC) morphology. p52 and RelB were detected in the nuclei in both CD1a+ and CD68+ cells from the T cell area, whereas p50 was found only in CD68- and CD1a- cells. Cells with nuclear p50 were negative for the CD38, CD20 and CD2 markers. These results show that, physiologically, high levels of nuclear of p50, p52 and RelB are restricted to accessory cells of the immune system, which include FDC in GC, and DC and macrophages in the T cell zone, that specialized scavenger macrophages from GC do not have detectable levels of p52 and RelB, whereas macrophages from the T cell area, known to present the antigen to T cells, do have both nuclear p52 and RelB, and that in the T cell zone, p52 and RelB are located in nuclei of both CD1a+, CD68+ or both, cells APC, whereas p50 is restricted to CD1a- and CD68- APC. The different patterns of p50, p52 and RelB protein nuclear localization may provide insight into their different roles during the immune response in vivo.