The cellular events involved in immunological tolerance to fluoresceinated sheep gammaglobulin (FL-SGG) were analyzed at the level of hapten-specific B cells. One single iv injection of FL-SGG induced tolerance as measured by challenge with thymus-dependent (FL-KLH) or thymus-independent (FL-Ficoll) antigens in vivo or thymus-independent (FL-LPS) antigen in vitro. As noted earlier, unresponsiveness was maintained until 6-8 weeks after tolerance induction. Limiting-dilution precursor analysis demonstrated a reduction in B-cell precursors on Day 7 after tolerogen treatment; precursor frequencies returned to control levels by 3-4 weeks. This recovery of precursors in the presence of stable tolerance was not due to suppressor activity. Rather, results show that tolerant hapten-specific B cells are clonally anergic and display a reduced burst size in response to antigen. Hence, unresponsiveness is maintained in the presence of apparently normal precursor levels by an intrinsic defect in antigen-specific B cells.