The alpha- and beta-globin gene clusters have been extensively studied. Regulation of these genes ensures that proteins derived from both loci are produced in balanced amounts, and that expression is tissue-restricted and specific to developmental stages. Here we compare the subnuclear location of the endogenous alpha- and beta-globin loci in primary human cells in which the genes are either actively expressed or silent. In erythroblasts, the alpha- and beta-globin genes are localized in areas of the nucleus that are discrete from alpha-satellite-rich constitutive heterochromatin. However, in cycling lymphocytes, which do not express globin genes, the distribution of alpha- and beta-globin genes was markedly different. beta-globin loci, in common with several inactive genes studied here (human c-fms and SOX-1) and previously (mouse lambda5, CD4, CD8alpha, RAGs, TdT and Sox-1), were associated with pericentric heterochromatin in a high proportion of cycling lymphocytes. In contrast, alpha-globin genes were not associated with centromeric heterochromatin in the nucleus of normal human lymphocytes, in lymphocytes from patients with alpha-thalassaemia lacking the regulatory HS-40 element or entire upstream region of the alpha-globin locus, or in mouse erythroblasts and lymphocytes derived from human alpha-globin transgenic mice. These data show that the normal regulated expression of alpha- and beta-globin gene clusters occurs in different nuclear environments in primary haemopoietic cells.