HBsAg from plasma of chronic hepatitis B carriers was purified by affinity chomatography using a mouse monoclonal antibody specific for HBsAg. Elution with buffer at two different pH values separated HBsAg into two fractions: one contained high amounts of immune complexes associated with HBsAg; the other contained larger quantities of the HBsAg polypeptides P24 and GP27 and only small amounts of immunoglobulin. When compared for effects on stimulating the proliferative response of freshly isolated lymphocytes and an HBsAg-specific T cell clone, the HBsAg fraction containing a high proportion of immunoglobulin was much more potent than HBsAg with low amounts of immunoglobulins or pure HBsAg, which was isolated from the culture supernatant of the human hepatoma cell line (PLC/PRF/5). The plasma-derived HBsAg with low amounts of complexed immunoglobulins became more immunogenic in the presence of an anti-HBsAg monoclonal IgG. The present results, combined with earlier findings, suggest that HBsAg associated with immune complexes is a more potent stimulator of T cells than purer HBsAg preparations due to an increase in the efficiency of monocytes to capture the antigen through binding to immune complexes for subsequent processing and presentation of the antigen. These observations could be of relevance for the preparation of effective hepatitis B vaccines from recombinant DNA and peptide synthesis technologies.