The absolute adult and fetal hemoglobin (HbF) contents of the erythroid cells derived from the differentiation of normal human and simian erythroid progenitors and of the peripheral blood erythroid burst-forming units (BFU-E) of patients with nondeletion hemoglobinopathies have been measured with a sensitive radioligand immunoassay. The HbF content varied between 0.13 and 2.96 pg/cell, representing between 0.7% and 19.6% of the total hemoglobin with a mean value of 7.0%. The absolute content of HbF was indistinguishable in the well-hemoglobinized progeny of marrow erythroid colony-forming units, marrow or blood BFU-E, or of mixed colony-forming units. The term HbF program refers to this inherent capacity to produce fetal hemoglobin (HbF) in the erythroid cells derived from these progenitors in vitro. The HbF content of marrow erythroblasts as determined by the same radioligand immunoassay was similar to that found in the peripheral blood, suggesting that the switch off of γ-chain production occurs after the erythroid colony-forming unit stage of maturation. Increasing concentrations of a crude erythropoietin-containing preparation induced higher numbers of erythroid colonies, which were larger in size, but the HbF program was unaffected. In contrast to the hemoglobin accumulation in human progenitor-derived colonies, simian progenitor-derived colonies produced considerably more HbF, and the amount of HbF was strongly influenced by progenitor maturity. Assays of the HbF content of erythroblasts derived from culture of the peripheral blood BFU-E of patients with nondeletion hemoglobinopathies and their parents showed that the HbF program in the progenitors of such patients is highly variable. Some produce only a slight excess of HbF in progenitor-derived erythroblasts, whereas others have extraordinarily high HbF programs. The molecular basis of this variability is presently unknown.
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