We wish to identify developmental changes in germinal center B cells that may contribute to their rapid growth. SHP-1 is an SH2 domain-containing phosphotyrosine phosphatase that negatively regulates activation of B cells and other cells of hematopoietic lineages. We have found that in all 13 EBV-negative and 11 EBV-positive Burkitt lymphomas with a nonlymphoblastoid phenotype, the mean concentration of SHP-1 was reduced to 5% of that of normal B and T cells. The possibility that this diminished expression of SHP-1 was related to the germinal center phenotype of Burkitt lymphomas was supported by the low to absent immunofluorescent staining for SHP-1 in germinal centers, and by the inverse relationship between the concentration of SHP-1 and the expression of the germinal center marker CD38 on purified tonsillar B cells. In CD38-high B cells, SHP-1 concentration was 20% of that of mantle zone B cells from the same donor. This reduction in SHP-1 is comparable to that of cells from motheaten viable mev/mev mice in which there is dysregulated, spontaneous signaling by cytokine and antigen receptors. Therefore, germinal center B cells may have a developmentally regulated, low threshold for cellular activation.