Juvenile chronic myelocytic leukemia (JCML) is a rare hematopoietic neoplasia of early childhood with distinct hematologic and biochemical features. We studied the biologic properties and the globin synthetic profiles of JCML erythroid cells both in vivo and in vitro from a total of 24 patients. In these cases we observed the exuberant colony-forming unit-macrophage (CFU-M) colony growth, as reported previously. Furthermore, in contrast to previous reports, we found significant erythroid colony growth in most of our cases (average: 1,182 burst- forming unit-erythroid [BFUe] per 10(5) plated cells, range: 40 to 6,927). This growth was by and large erythropoietin-dependent and was not greatly influenced by other added cytokines. By several criteria all erythroid colony growth detected in vitro was derived from JCML progenitors. The globin synthetic profile of JCML erythroid cells showed high levels of fetal hemoglobin both in vivo and in vitro (gamma/gamma + beta: 53% to 94% in reticulocytes, 62% to 98% in BFUe- derived cells). In addition (in seven cases studied) we detected embryonic globins (epsilon and zeta) at the protein and messenger RNA level, a novel finding for primary leukemic cells. We speculate that the transformed erythroid cells in JCML harbor a trans environment supporting expression of developmentally earlier genes (fetal, embryonic). However, in contrast to other acute or subacute leukemias, JCML erythroid cells also have the ability to reach full maturation to the red cell level, thus allowing detection of this primitive program in vivo.