The first monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) to epitopes in the extracellular domain of the human c-fms proto-oncogene product (receptor for the macrophage colony stimulating factor, CSF-1) were used with flow cytometric techniques to study receptor expression on normal human peripheral blood monocytes, bone marrow cells, and leukemic blasts. On normal cells CSF-1 receptors were restricted in their expression to cells of the mononuclear phagocyte lineage. CSF-1 receptors were detected on leukemic blasts from 15 (30%) of 50 children with acute myeloid leukemia, compared with four (15%) of 26 adults. By contrast, detectable CSF-1 receptors were uniformly absent on blasts from 19 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. CSF-1 receptors on normal monocytes and myeloid leukemia cells could be induced to downmodulate by incubation with either human recombinant CSF-1 or phorbol esters, confirming that the receptors had functional ligand- binding sites and responded to transmodulation by inducers of protein kinase C. The numbers of receptors per cell and the percentage of positive cases were highest for leukemic blasts with cytochemical and morphological features of monocytes. However, CSF-1 receptors were also detected on a subset of leukemic blast cells with features of granulocytic differentiation (FAB subtypes M1 through M3). Southern blotting analyses of DNA from 47 cases of acute myeloid leukemia demonstrated no rearrangements within the 32 kb of genomic sequences that contain CSF-1 receptor coding exons or in the 50 kb upstream of the first coding exon. Analysis of the upstream region of the c-fms locus revealed that sequences representing the terminal 112 untranslated nucleotides of c-fms mRNA map 26 kb 5′ to the first coding exon, suggesting that at least one c-fms promoter is separated from the receptor coding sequences by a very long intron. Whereas expression of the CSF-1 receptor in myeloid leukemic blasts is not restricted to cells with monocytic characteristics, the apparently aberrant pattern of receptor synthesis in a subset of cases with granulocytic features appears not to be due to chromosomal rearrangements within 50 kb upstream of sequences encoding the receptor.