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Interleukin-4 (IL-4) is a multipotent cytokine which stimulates proliferation of B and T lymphocytes, induces B lymphocyte expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules and Fc epsilon R II (CD23) molecules, and promotes immunoglobulin class switching to IgE and IgG1. The mechanisms by which IL-4 induces these changes are unclear. To study the basis for heterogeneity in induction of class II MHC proteins observed in splenic B cells, three mouse B cell lines were treated with IL-4, and the response of MHC class II A alpha mRNA was analyzed. Each of the three cell lines responded with a distinctive profile. In one line, 70Z/3, A alpha mRNA was induced greater than 10 fold by 65 hr of IL-4 stimulation. Additional studies showed that A alpha mRNA was stabilized by IL-4 treatment of 70Z/3 cells, and that changes in gene transcription accounted for little of the increase in mRNA levels. A second line, WEHI.231, was shown to increase A alpha mRNA levels 4 fold after 48 hr of IL-4 treatment. In contrast to 70Z/3, when A alpha mRNA stability in the IL-4 treated WEHI.231 cells was compared to untreated cells, no difference was observed, IL-4 treatment induced A alpha transcription. The third cell line, M12.4.1, expressed high basal levels of A alpha, and these levels increased only slightly following IL-4 stimulation. The small increase correlated with a comparable transcriptional response. These data shown that the nature of the A alpha gene response to IL-4 differs among B cell lines. This heterogeneity of response is consistent with responses in total splenic B cells, and with the existence of functionally distinct subpopulations of B cells.