Human trophoblast cells express an unusual repertoire of human leucocyte antigen (HLA) molecules which has been difficult to define. Close homology between and extreme polymorphism at the classical HLA class-I (HLA-I) loci has made it difficult to generate locus-specific monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). The problem of defining an antibody's reactivity against the thousands of existing HLA-I allotypes has often made it impossible to determine the HLA bound by a mAb in biological samples from a normal outbred population. Here we have used commercially available beads coated with individual HLA-I to characterize experimentally the reactivity of nine mAb against 96 common HLA-I allotypes. In conjunction with donor HLA-I genotyping, we could then define the specific HLA molecules bound by these antibodies in normal individuals. We used this approach to analyse the HLA expression of primary trophoblast cells from normal pregnancies; the choriocarcinoma cells JEG-3 and JAR; and the placental cell lines HTR-8/SVneo, Swan-71 and TEV-1. We confirm that primary villous trophoblast cells are HLA null whereas extravillous trophoblast cells express HLA-C, HLA-G and HLA-E, but not HLA-A, HLA-B or HLA-DR molecules in normal pregnancy. Tumour-derived JEG-3 and JAR cells reflect extravillous and villous trophoblast HLA phenotypes, respectively, but the HLA repertoire of the in vitro derived placental cell lines is not representative of either in vivo trophoblast phenotype. This study raises questions regarding the validity of using the placental cell lines that are currently available as model systems for immunological interactions between fetal trophoblast and maternal leucocytes bearing receptors for HLA molecules.