The expression of carbonic anhydrase (CA) as a marker of erythroid differentiation was investigated by immunologic and enzymatic procedures. A polyclonal anti-CA antibody was obtained by immunizing rabbits with purified CA I isozyme. This antibody is reactive with CA I but not with CA II. Within blood cells, CA I was only present in erythrocytes, whereas CA II was also detected in platelet lysates by enzymatic assay. Concerning marrow cells, identifiable erythroblasts and some blast cells expressed CA I. Most of the glycophorin A-positive marrow cells were clearly labeled by the anti-CA I antibody. However, rare CA I-positive cells were not reactive with anti-glycophorin A antibodies. We therefore investigated whether these cells were erythroid precursors or progenitors. In cell sorting experiments of marrow cells with the FA6 152 monoclonal antibody, which among hematopoietic progenitors is reactive only with CFU-E and a part of BFU- E, was performed, CA I+ cells were found mainly in the positive fraction. The percentage of CA I+ cells nonreactive with anti- glycophorin A antibodies contained in the two fractions was in the same range as the percentage of erythroid progenitors identified by their capacity to form colonies. In addition, the anti-CA I antibody labeled blood BFU-E-derived colonies as early as day 6 of culture, whereas in similar experiments with the anti-glycophorin A antibodies, they were stained three or four days later. No labeling was observed in CFU-GM- or CFU-MK-derived colonies. The phenotype of the day 6 cells expressing CA I was similar to that of erythroid progenitors (CFU-E or BFU-E): negative for glycophorin A and hemoglobin, and positive for HLA-DR antigen, the antigen identified by FA6 152, and blood group A antigen. Among the cell lines tested, only HEL cells expressed CA I, while K562 was unlabeled by the anti-CA I antibody. In contrast, HEL and K562 cells expressed CA II as detected by a biochemical technique. Synthesis of CA I, as with other erythroid markers such as glycophorin A and hemoglobin, was almost abolished after 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13 acetate treatment of HEL cells. In conclusion, CA I appears to be an early specific marker of the erythroid differentiation, expressed by a cell with a similar phenotype as an erythroid progenitor.