Human MM is a haematologic disorder characterized by the accumulation of malignant plasma cells (PC), primarily in the bone marrow (BM). Although these cells characteristically home to the BM, in recent years several groups have detected the presence of related malignant B cells in the peripheral blood (PB) which could be implicated in the progression and spread of the disease. However, the proportion and origin of these clonotypic circulating B cells is still controversial. In this study, using a triple-staining flow cytometric procedure and a whole blood lysis method, PB B lineage cells could be divided into two populations according to their distinct repertoires of cell adhesion molecules and B cell antigens in untreated MM patients. The results show that: (i) the percentage and the absolute number of PB CD19+ B cells were decreased in MM patients compared with controls; (ii) the quantity and percentage of B cell antigens (CD20, CD22, CD24, DR, CD138) and adhesion molecules (beta1- and beta2-integrins, CD44, CD54, CD56, CD61 and CD62L) expressed by these PB CD19+ cells of MM patients and healthy subjects were similar and all of them were virtually polyclonal cells; (iii) a very minor circulating CD19-CD38++CD45-/dim subset was also detected which expressed CD138 (B-B4) (high intensity), monoclonal cytoplasmic immunoglobulin (cIg), and was negative for pan-B antigens (CD19, CD20, CD24, DR), surface immunoglobulin (sIg) and several adhesion molecules such as CD62L, CD18 and CD11a; this CD19-CD38++CD45-/dim CD138++ subset was not found in normal blood and exhibited a phenotypic profile which was closely related to that of malignant BM plasma cells, with the exception of the CD56 antigen. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis of IgH clonotypic rearrangements confirmed these results. We postulate that, in MM patients, circulating B lineage cells may be divided into two different categories: polyclonal CD19+ B cells and a very minor proportion of clonal CD138++ PC that escape from the BM.