Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is thought to be caused by the t(15,17) translocation that fuses the PML gene to that of the retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR alpha) and generates a PML/RAR alpha fusion protein. Yet, paradoxically, APL cells are exquisitely sensitive to retinoic acid (RA), as they terminally differentiate upon RA exposure. In this report, we have examined the expression of PML and PML/RAR alpha in normal and APL cells. By immunofluorescence or immunocytochemistry, we show that PML has a speckled nuclear pattern of expression that contrasts with that of PML/RAR alpha (mostly a micropunctuated nuclear pattern or a cytoplasmic localization). The APL- derived cell line NB4 that expresses both the PML and PML/RAR alpha genes also shows the fine micropunctuated nuclear pattern, suggesting a dominant effect of the fusion protein over the localization of wild- type PML. RA treatment of NB4 cells or clones expressing PML/RAR alpha gradually leads to a PML pattern before apparent morphologic maturation. In 14 untreated APL patients, the PML-reactive proteins were cytoplasmic (by immunocytochemistry) or both cytoplasmic and nuclear with a micropunctuated pattern (by immunofluorescence). Strikingly, in 4 patients, after 1 to 2 weeks of RA therapy, the speckled nuclear PML pattern reappeared concomitant with the onset of differentiation. These results establish that fusion of PML to RAR alpha results in an altered localization of PML that is reverted upon RA treatment. This observation, which highlights the importance of PML, is likely to be a key to unravelling the molecular mechanism of both leukemogenesis and RA-induced differentiation of APL.