Site-directed mutagenesis has been used to introduce amino acid substitutions at specific residues of the staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) gene cloned from Staphylococcus aureus 10-275. The mitogenic activities of these derivatives were determined in two assay systems: (i) mouse spleen cells and (ii) a mixture of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells and lymphocytes. Substitution of either His-12, His-32, His-121, His-166, Lys-152, or Gly-205 did not significantly alter the mitogenic activity from that of the wild-type toxin in either proliferation assay. Substitution of either residue Asn-23, Phe-44, or Cys-93 reduced the mitogenicity of SEB by a degree that depended upon the assay system used. Similar to the results reported by others measuring toxin activation of mouse lymphoid cells, we found that substitutions of these three residues of SEB caused at least 800-fold reductions of mitogenic activity from that of the wild-type toxin. When tested for toxicity in vivo in D-galactosamine-treated mice, the reduced activities of these mutant toxins, however, were not as pronounced. In contrast, when tested in the human cell mitogenicity assay, these mutant toxins were active. Small alterations in activity (two- to fivefold reduction) were observable only at low concentrations. Our findings reveal the importance of using human lymphocytes in addition to the traditional mouse spleen cell assay when assessing biological activities of staphylococcal enterotoxins.