We examined the synthesis of lactoferrin, an iron binding protein that, among hematopoietic cells, is restricted to secondary granules of polymorphonuclear leukocytes. Lactoferrin biosynthesis was absent from leukemic myeloblasts and promyelocytes but abundant in normal bone marrow and both the bone marrow and peripheral blood of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CGL) if the samples contained substantial numbers of myelocytes and metamyelocytes. Lactoferrin was present in the steady state in normal or CGL bands and polymorphonuclear leukocytes, but no lactoferrin biosynthesis was detectable in these samples. Taken together, these results suggest that lactoferrin accumulation begins with the onset of biosynthesis at the myelocyte stage and is largely complete by the beginning of the band stage of maturation. HL-60 cells, a permanent promyelocytic leukemia cell line, synthesized no lactoferrin. Translation of messenger RNA in Xenopus laevis oocytes revealed that mRNA from patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia and abundant myelocytes and metamyelocytes directed the synthesis of readily detectable amounts of lactoferrin, whereas HL-60 cells contained no translatable lactoferrin mRNA. We thus hypothesize that lactoferrin is a useful marker of gene expression restricted to the terminal stages of granulocyte maturation. Biosynthesis of this protein appears to be mediated by appearance of translatable mRNA at the myelocyte stage, coincident with development of secondary granules. Absence of lactoferrin production by HL-60 cells is due to absence of translatable lactoferrin mRNA, either because of lineage infidelity of these transformed cells or because of arrest before the developmental stage at which secondary granules appear.