Alternate splicing and glycosylation produce multiple CD45 isoforms which are selectively expressed on the surface of cells of the haemopoietic system. The expression of CD45RA, CD45RB and CD45RO on CD34+ and CD34- haemopoietic cells from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow and fetal liver were studied by flow cytometry. CD34+ subpopulations defined by CD45 isoform expression were sorted from bone marrow and tested in long-term culture assays. By combining results of functional studies with phenotypic data and previously published information, the following pattern of CD45 isoform expression on early haemopoietic cells was established. The most primitive CD34+ cells are CD45RO+ CD45RB+ and express low or undetectable levels of CD45RA. Upon erythroid differentiation, CD34+ cells remain CD45RO+ CD45RB+, whereas commitment into the myeloid and lymphoid lineages coincides with down-regulation of CD45RO and up-regulation of CD45RA. As a result, the majority of CD34+ cells can be divided into two mutually exclusive populations of cells which express either CD45RO or CD45RA. This notion was confirmed in this study by three-colour immunofluorescence. The alternative expression of various CD45 isoforms on functionally distinct haemopoietic cells suggests an important role for these molecules in the proliferation and differentiation of haemopoietic cells.