The bilateral trafficking of nucleated cells between the fetus and the mother was studied using polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based systems sensitive enough to detect 1 target cell in 100,000 background cells. Sixty-six mother-baby pairs were recruited; maternal and cord blood samples were collected at delivery for DNA extraction. Cell trafficking was studied in informative cases using PCR-genotyping of polymorphic regions in the beta-globin cluster, the glutathione S-transferase M1 locus and the angiotensin converting enzyme gene. In addition, Y-PCR was also used in conjunction with these systems for the detection of fetal cells in maternal circulation. Fetal cells were detected in maternal peripheral blood in 26 of 51 cases whereas maternal cells were detected in 16 of 38 fetal umbilical cord blood samples. The proportion of umbilical samples with detectable maternal sequences was much higher than previously reported. In the 28 cases informative for both mother and baby, there was no obvious correlation between the cell traffic from mother to baby as compared to that from baby to mother. These findings may have implications for the use of cord blood for bone marrow transplantation, the vertical transmission of infectious agents, and the physiology of the feto-maternal relationship.