The peripheral blood of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients with chronic-phase disease and elevated white blood cell (WBC) counts typically contains markedly increased numbers of a variety of neoplastic pluripotent and lineage-restricted hematopoietic progenitors. These include cells detected in standard colony assays as well as their more primitive precursors. The latter are referred to as long-term culture-initiating cells (LTC-IC) because of their ability to generate clonogenic cell progeny detectable after a minimum of 5 weeks incubation on competent fibroblast feeder layers. In this study, we have investigated a number of the properties of the LTC-IC and clonogenic cells present in the blood of such CML patients with high WBC counts. This included an analysis of the light scattering properties of these progenitors, as well as their expression of CD34 and HLA-DR, Rhodamine-123 staining, and in vitro sensitivity to 4- hydroperoxycyclophosphamide. In the case of LTC-IC, the production of different types of lineage-restricted and multipotent progeny was also analyzed. Most of the circulating LTC-IC and clonogenic cells in the CML patients studied (on average approximately 70% and approximately 90%, respectively) showed features of proliferating or activated cells. This is in marked contrast to the majority of progenitors in the blood of normal individuals and most of the LTC-IC in normal marrow, all of which exhibit a phenotype expected of quiescent cells. Interestingly, a significant proportion of the circulating clonogenic cells and LTC-IC in the CML samples studied (on average approximately 10% and approximately 30%, respectively) appeared to be phenotypically similar to normal circulating progenitors, although their absolute numbers were indicative of a neoplastic origin. Both phenotypes of circulating CML clonogenic cells and LTC-IC could be obtained at approximately 10% to 20% purity by differential multiparameter sorting. These findings suggest that expansion of the Philadelphia chromosome-positive clone at the level of the earliest types of hematopoietic cells results from the activation of mechanisms that enable some, but not all, signals that block the cycling of normal stem cells to be bypassed or overcome. In addition, they provide strategies for purifying these primitive leukemic cells that should facilitate further analysis of the mechanisms underlying their abnormal proliferative behavior.