Ferrochelatase, estimated as zinc chelatase, was measured in the lymphocytes of 30 patients with erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), in 35 first- or second-degree relatives of patients with EPP, and in 50 healthy controls. In 30 EPP patients the zinc chelatase level (mean +/- standard deviation, SD) was 0.45 +/- 0.10 nmol of zinc protoporphyrin per hour per milligram of protein, in 14 EPP carriers the zinc chelatase level (mean +/- SD) was 0.42 +/- 0.09 and in 50 healthy controls the zinc chelatase level (mean +/- SD) was 0.84 +/- 0.27. All patients with EPP were also demonstrated to have an elevated protoporphyrin level in their red blood cells: the erythrocyte protoporphyrin levels were as follows EPP patients (mean +/- SD) 1300 +/- 758 nmol protoporphyrin/dl, EPP carriers (mean +/- SD) 60 +/- 24, and healthy controls (mean +/- SD) 50 +/- 25 (P < 0.001 for EPP patients compared to controls and EPP carriers). The families of 12 out of 15 EPP patients were examined with respect to the mode of inheritance of the disorder. Of 35 relatives, 14 were carriers of EPP, as characterized by reduced zinc chelatase activity in lymphocytes and by a normal protoporphyrin level in red blood cells. None of the 14 EPP carriers had presented with clinical symptoms of EPP. The mod of inheritance was autosomal dominant in seven of the 12 examined families, and autosomal recessive in two. In two families only one parent could be investigated, but we nevertheless concluded that the inheritance was autosomal dominant. Inheritance in one EPP family could not be elucidated as both parents showed normal zinc chelatase levels and did not demonstrate abnormal erythrocyte protoporphyrin levels.