A sensitive and specific radioimmunoassay (RIA) for human embryonic zeta-globin chains was used to study normal fetal blood and newborn cord blood as well as cord blood from newborns with alpha-thalassemias. From 17 weeks until 37 weeks of gestation, zeta-globin chains were present in almost all fetal and cord blood samples (0.27% +/- 0.15% in samples of weeks 17 through 30; 0.14% +/- 0.11% in samples of weeks 31 through 37). zeta-Globin chains were present in greater than 80% of cord blood hemolysates from normal, full-term newborns (0.15% +/- 0.11%) as well as from 16 near-term newborns of diabetic mothers (0.13% +/- 0.13%). zeta-Globin chains were not detected in normal infants aged 3 months to 2 years. In cord blood hemolysates from alpha-thalassemic newborns, the levels of zeta-globin chain content varied from very high to undetectable levels. Gene mapping of the zeta-alpha-globin gene cluster was performed in 12 newborns in whom cord blood zeta-globin chains had been determined. Newborns who were carriers of alpha- thalassemia-1 due to the (--SEA/) deletion had very high levels of zeta- globin chains (greater than 1.5%).