The hierarchical level of stem cell involvement in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) characterized by the pathognomonic PML-RARA fusion gene is unknown. To determine if the cells of the primitive hematopoietic stem cell compartment are involved in the leukemic process, we have used molecular and cell sorting techniques in peripheral blood and bone marrow (BM) cells at diagnosis from three patients with APL and t(15; 17). In two of them, clonality analysis was also possible using the BstXI polymorphic site of the PGK gene. The PML-RARA fusion gene was readily identified by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis of BM cells obtained at diagnosis in all three patients. These same samples were then used to sort CD34+ cells and their CD38+ and CD38-subsets by fluorescence-activated cell sorting. In both female patients, CD34+/CD38+ and CD34+/CD38- cell fractions were polyclonal using PCR, whereas a monoclonal pattern was identified at the BM sample obtained at diagnosis either by Southern blotting or by PCR. Because of the high sensitivity of the PCR analysis, the polyclonal pattern of these cell populations could mask the presence of a minor clone. To detect this clone, we preformed RT-PCR analysis for t(15; 17). In one female patient, the abnormal PML-RAR fusion gene was found only in the more mature CD34+/CD38+ cell fraction using a nested PCR approach, whereas the polyclonal CD34+/CD38- fraction was PML-RARA negative. These findings were confirmed in a third patient with APL in whom the PML-RARA transcripts were absent in the CD34+/CD38- cell fraction. To study the clonality at the level of clonogenic progenitors, we used in one patient PGK analysis by PCR of individual burst-forming units-erythroid and colony-forming units-granulocyte- macrophage obtained from the CD34+/CD38- and CD34+/CD38+ cell populations at diagnosis and from the BM sample obtained during remission. The two highly purified cell populations gave rise to morphologically normal colonies clonal for both the BstXI site containing (A) and the BstXI site lacking (B) PGK allelles, indicating their polyclonal content, a pattern that was also found in clonogenic progenitors obtained at remission. These findings strongly suggest that the primitive hematopoietic stem cells as defined by the CD34+/CD38- antigens are not involved by the neoplastic process in APL. These results may have important implications for autografting strategies of retinoic acid/chemotherapy-resistant or relapsed patients.