Follicular dendritic cells (FDCs) in reactive germinal centres (GCs) show modulated expression of antigens indicative of step-wise maturation from more undifferentiated stroma. The present study compared the expression of FDC markers CD21, CD23, CD35, and chemokine CXCL13 and the stromal markers low-affinity nerve growth factor receptor (LNGFR) and CNA.42 in 35 follicular lymphoma (FL) cases with reactive lymphoic tissue. CXCL13 was expressed by follicular stroma in all FLs but most cases showed either partial (11/35 cases, 31%) or complete (10/35 cases, 29%) absence of other FDC antigens, most commonly CD23, followed by CD21 and CD35, with variable patterns of LNGFR and CNA.42 immunostaining. Only a minority of FL cases (14/35, 40%) showed stroma that resembled mature FDCs (CD23+, CD21+, CD35+) and these tumours were always associated with numerous intrafollicular T-cells, similar to reactive GCs. In the 25 FL cases that had identifiable extrafollicular tumour cells, the immunophenotype of follicular stroma showed the same variability but the extrafollicular stroma showed an absence of FDC markers, with the exception of frequent strong LNGFR staining. Stromal phenotypic changes in FL were not correlated with mean follicle size, percentage of diffuse growth, tumour mitotic rate or the proliferation index as determined by PCNA immunostaining. Serial biopsy specimens analysed in a subset of 15 patients showed either a stable stromal phenotype (seven cases, 47%) or loss of FDC antigens in tumour-associated stroma over time (seven cases, 47%). The GC-like subset of FLs, having both abundant intrafollicular T-cells and fully differentiated CD23+ FDCs, comprises a minority of FL cases that likely have different growth requirements from FLs that lack these features. The pattern of FDC antigen loss in stroma of FL is a readily assessable biological feature that appears independent of architectural growth pattern and may serve as a useful surrogate marker of tumour progression. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.