To search for precursors of the neoplastic B cells in a patient with a nodular lymphoma, we produced a monoclonal antibody to a variable region idiotope on the lymphoma IgM heavy chain. Clonal ancestors of the lymphoma cells were identified by this marker among bone marow pre-B cells (5% to 26%). A second antiidiotype (anti-Id) antibody specific for the complete lymphoma IgMk recognized 10% of B cells in bone marrow and blood and >95% of B cells in lymphomatous lymph nodes, including one obtained after tumor conversion to a diffuse large cell lymphoma. Immunoglobulin gene analysis surprisingly revealed expansion of multiple clones of early B lineage cells in bone marrow, including members of the neoplastic clone. The data suggest that this lymphoma arose through a progression of transformational events beginning in bone marrow: first, creation of an oligoclonal pre-neoplastic pool of pre-B cells, subsequent conversion of a single subclone into low grade neoplastic B cells that homed to the lymph node follicles, and later progression to a more invasive form of the B-cell lymphoma.