Affinity maturation of antibody responses depends on somatic hypermutation of the immunoglobulin V genes. Hypermutation is initiated specifically in proliferating B cells in lymphoid germinal centres but the signals driving this process remain unknown. This study identifies signals that promote V gene mutation in human germinal centre (GC) B cells in vitro. Single GC B cells were cultured by limiting dilution to allow detection of mutations arising during proliferation in vitro. Cells were first cultured in the presence of CD32L cell transfectants and CD40 antibody (the 'CD40 system') supplemented with combinations of cytokines capable of supporting similar levels of CD40-dependent GC B-cell growth [interleukin (IL)-10 + IL-1beta + IL-2 and IL-10 + IL-7 + IL-4]. Components of the 'EL4 system' were then added to drive differentiation, providing sufficient immunoglobulin mRNA for analysis. Analysis of VH3 genes from cultured cells by reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)-based single-strand conformation polymorphism indicated that the combination IL-10 + IL-1beta + IL-2 promoted active V gene mutation whereas IL-10 + IL-7 + IL-4 was ineffective. This was confirmed by sequencing which also revealed that the de novo generated mutations were located in framework and complementarity-determining regions and shared characteristics with those arising in vivo. Somatic mutation in the target GC B-cell population may therefore be actively cytokine driven and not simply a consequence of continued proliferation. The experimental approach we describe should facilitate further studies of the mechanisms underlying V gene hypermutation.