Ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity was measured in peripheral blood lymphocytes isolated from serial specimens from nine healthy full-term infants and two premature infants at 0, 2, 4, and 6 mo of age. The postnatal nadir in activity was 7.1 +/- 2.0 nmol/hr/10(6) cells, which is the same as the activity in cord blood lymphocytes (7.0 +/- 2 nmol/hr/10(6) cells). The activity rose twofold to 13.2 +/- 3.8 nmol/hr/10(6) cells at 6 mo of age (p less than 0.001, paired t-test), which is similar to the activity in adult peripheral blood lymphocytes (14.1 +/- 6.3 nmol/hr/10(6) cells). This increased activity in total lymphocytes reflects increased activity in the B cell population. B cell ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity in two infants at 12 to 13 mo of age was 19.3 and 25.2 nmol/hr/10(6) cells, values that are four-to fivefold higher than for cord blood B cells (5.6 +/- 2.8 nmol/hr/10(6) cells) and within the normal range for adult B cells (27.9 +/- 12 nmol/hr/10(6) cells). In spite of a greatly expanded peripheral blood B cell population, studies of immunoglobulin biosynthesis in vitro demonstrated that infant peripheral blood B cells are functionally immature with no synthesis of IgG in response to Epstein Barr virus. Thus, the increase in peripheral blood B lymphocyte ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity in infants precedes their acquisition of a capacity for IgG synthesis in vitro. Data from a hypogammaglobulinemic infant revealed a persistently low ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity over a 10-mo period until at 14 mo of age the activity was 8.8 nmol/hr/10(6) cells in total lymphocytes and 13.0 nmol/hr/10(6) cells in B cells, which correlated with in vivo and in vitro evidence of delayed B cell maturation. Thus, ecto-5'-nucleotidase activity may be a useful cell surface marker in studies of human postnatal B cell maturation.