Ecto-5'-nucleotidase (ecto-5'-NT) is believed to be a maturation marker for human B lymphocytes because its expression increases during normal development and is reduced in many patients with B cell immunodeficiencies. To determine whether this enzyme defines functional subsets of B lymphocytes, human peripheral blood B cells, separated into ecto-5'-NT positive and negative populations by using goat anti-5'-NT antibodies and the fluorescence-activated cell sorter, were compared for their ability to secrete polyclonal immunoglobulin. Both populations synthesized equivalent quantities of IgM in response to a T cell-dependent (PWM) or T cell-independent (EBV) stimulator of polyclonal immunoglobulin biosynthesis. However, ecto-5'-NT+ B lymphocytes synthesized 8- to 26-fold more IgG per cell than ecto-5'-NT- B cells. These data provide the first direct evidence that ecto-5'-NT is a marker for the functional maturation of human B cells and support the hypothesis that ecto-5'-NT deficiency in patients with hypogammaglobulinemia results from a block in B lymphocyte maturation.