Chromosome translocations involving antigen receptor loci are a genetic hallmark of non-Hodgkin's lymphomas in humans. Most commonly, these translocations result in juxtaposition of the immunoglobulin heavy-chain (IgH) locus with one of several cellular proto-oncogenes, leading to deregulated oncogene expression. The V(D)J recombinase, which mediates physiologic rearrangements of antigen receptor genes, may play a mechanistic role in some lymphoma translocations, although evidence is indirect. A high incidence of B-lineage lymphomas has been observed in mice with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and p53-null mutations. We show that these tumors are characteristic of the pro-B-cell stage of development and that they harbor recurrent translocations involving chromosomes 12 and 15. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) shows retention of IgH sequences on the derivative chromosome 12, implying that breakpoints involve the IgH locus. Pro-B-cell lymphomas were suppressed in SCID p53(-/-) mice by a Rag-2-null mutation, demonstrating that DNA breaks generated during V(D)J recombination are required for oncogenic transformation, and suggesting that t(12;15) arise during attempted IgH rearrangement in pro-B cells. These studies indicate that the oncogenic potential inherent in antigen receptor diversification is controlled in vivo by efficient rejoining of DNA ends generated during V(D)J recombination and an intact cellular response to DNA damage.