We examined the arrangement of the mu heavy-chain immunoglobulin (Ig) genes in the leukemic blast cell DNA of 93 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). All cases met morphologic and cytochemical criteria for ALL, lacked detectable T cell surface antigens, and expressed HLA-DR (Ia) antigens. Eighty-three of the 93 patients (89%) were positive for the common acute lymphoblastic leukemia antigen (CALLA), and 20 of 91 (22%) tested had detectable cytoplasmic immunoglobulin. As expected, the heavy-chain lg gene was rearranged in all cases, and the pattern of rearrangements was variable; 23 had one allele rearranged and one in the germ line configuration; 15 had one rearranged and one deleted; and 37 had two rearranged. Unexpectedly, in 18 patients the presence of more than two mu gene-hybridizing bands was detected. Combinations of enzymes and heavy-chain gene probes were used to confirm that the extra bands were not the result of underdigestion of the DNA or DNA restriction site polymorphism. In eight of the 18 patients, we identified an extra chromosome 14 as a possible cause of the extra bands' hybridizing to the mu heavy-chain constant-region probe. In the remaining ten patients, the presence of three or four bands hybridizing with the mu probe suggests the presence of two populations of leukemic cells that may have arisen either by separate leukemic transformation events or by clonal evolution of one clone into two related lines. Although preliminary (2-year follow-up), our data suggest that childhood ALL of B lineage with more than two mu heavy-chain genes, but without extra copies of chromosome 14, may be more resistant to therapy.