Small dense B cells are stimulated to proliferate by membranes prepared from activated helper T (Th) cell clones. In combination with Th2 lymphokines, Th membranes stimulate B cells to differentiate to secrete predominantly immunoglobulin (Ig)M, IgG1 and IgE. The activity in Th membrane requires the expression of CD40 ligand by the T cells, and initiation of the B cell response occurs through the ligation of CD40 on the B cell surface. We have further characterized the properties of the B cell response and found that Th membranes stimulated B cell proliferation and Ig secretion in a cell density independent manner and the majority of the stimulated B cells underwent a limited number of division rounds between day 2 and 5 of culture. IgM-secreting cells appeared in culture by day 3 and increased to reach a maximum, comprised of 30% of the viable cells, on day 5. IgG1-secreting cells appeared 12-24 h after IgM-secreting cells, and IgE-secreting cells did not appear until day 5. These data are consistent with a sequential model of isotype switching related to cell division. As lymphokines were absolutely required for antibody production we were able to determine when during culture they were essential. Lymphokines needed to be present prior to and during B cell proliferation for differentiation to Ig-secreting cells to proceed. This period corresponded closely to the time of maximum DNA synthesis. Consistent with sequential switching of Ig isotypes, differentiation to IgM secretion required the shortest exposure to lymphokines and IgE the longest. These experiments strongly suggest that the lymphokine-induced commitment to differentiate is made before DNA synthesis begins, although the lymphokine-delivered signals are necessary during DNA synthesis to support Ig class switching.