We studied the relationship of direct karyotypes, determined at diagnosis and remission, to Abelson-related tyrosine kinase activity and the cytogenetic features of erythroid and myeloid colonies derived from remission marrow of six children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). These patients had either the characteristic Philadelphia chromosome (Ph1) [t(9;22)(q34;q11)] or cytogenetically similar variants with a 22q11 breakpoint but no detectable cytogenetic involvement of 9q34. The findings suggested two distinct subtypes of ALL: one defined by t(9;22)(q34;q11) and expression of P185BCR-ABL tyrosine kinase and one with variant karyotypes and no P185BCR-ABL expression. The former comprises cases with Ph1 + marrow cells and Ph1 + erythroid and (or) myeloid colonies in remission marrow and others in which the t(9;22) is undetectable in remission marrow cells. In the latter subgroup, the disease may reflect more extreme mosaicism with a similar stem cell that is cytogenetically undetectable. Variant karyotypes included a del(22)(q11) in one patient and a t(6;22;15;9) (q21;q11;q?22;q21) in another; in both instances, the malignant blast cells lacked P185BCR- ABL expression. Thus ALL with t(9;22)(q34;q11) should be distinguished from ALL with other involvement of the 22q11 breakpoint by molecular studies including protein expression. The diversity of karyotypic findings in cases with involvement of 22q11 suggests at least two mechanisms of leukemogenesis in patients with ALL defined by this breakpoint.