Hodgkin's mononuclear cells, Reed-Sternberg (H-RS) cells, and U-937 and SU-DHL-1 histocytic cell lines were induced to differentiate by phorbol ester in cultures. The phenotypes of cells were determined by a panel of antibodies specific for monocytes, histiocytes, and interdigitating reticulum cells. Before induction, SU-DHL-1 cells and H-RS cells expressed similar markers, such as HeFi-1, 2H9, 1A2, and 1E9. In addition, SU-DHL-1 cells were also stained by Tac and Leu M5. Other monocyte markers, including OK M1, Co Mo2, BRL Mo1, BRL Mo2, and Leu M3 were consistently negative in both types of cells. After induction, SU-DHL-1 cells conserved the same phenotype, but H-RS cells became negative for HeFi-1, 1A2, and 2H9. The U-937 cells expressed Leu M1 and Co Mo2 and became positive for Leu M5, OK M1, Co Mo2, BRL Mo2, 2H9, and 1E9 after phorbol ester induction. The U-937 cells did not express HeFi-1 or 1A2. The marker expression of H-RS cells, SU-DHL-1 cells, and U-937 cells were compared with those of histiocytes or interdigitating reticulum cells in lymphoid tissues and with neoplastic cells in true histiocytic lymphoma and malignant histiocytosis. It is concluded that SU-DHL-1, U-937, and H-RS cells are derived from or most closely related to fixed histiocytes, free histiocytes, and interdigitating reticulum cells, respectively. Our study further confirms the diagnosis of SU-DHL-1 as true histiocytic lymphoma but reveals that U-937 is a case of malignant histiocytosis rather than the previously diagnosed histiocytic lymphoma. The phenotypes and induction properties of SU-DHL-1 cells are quite different from those of U-937 cells, which suggests that true histiocytic lymphoma and malignant histiocytosis are two distinct disease entities.