Two members of the src proto-oncogene family of intracellular tyrosine kinases, c-fgr and hck, are selectively expressed in differentiated myeloid cells. To study the expression of these genes in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and to determine the specific myeloid lineages and stages of myeloid differentiation at which the expression of these genes is acquired, we used a series of 79 cases of de novo AML as a differentiation model. The levels of c-fgr, hck, and c-fms (encoding the colony-stimulating factor-1 receptor) mRNA transcripts were correlated with the presence of specific cell surface antigens and the morphologic and cytochemical features in these AML blasts. Relatively undifferentiated leukemic myeloblasts with an HLA-DR, CD34, CD33, CD13+/- cell surface immunophenotype (French-American-British [FAB] M1 or M2) were characterized by a lack of c-fms and c-fgr expression, while low levels of c-fms and c-fgr could be detected in undifferentiated myeloblasts (FAB M1 or M2), which also expressed CD14 at low antigen density. The hck transcripts were either undetectable in these cells or were expressed at low levels. In contrast, only hck mRNA transcripts could be identified in blasts with progranulocytic morphology (FAB M3), while c-fms, c-fgr, and hck were all expressed at high levels in blasts with differentiated myelomonocytic or monocytic features (FAB M4 and M5). No c-fms, c-fgr, or hck transcripts were evident in leukemic cells of the erythroid lineage (FAB M6). When undifferentiated leukemic myeloblasts (HLA-DR, CD34, and CD33) were induced to differentiate in vitro to cells with monocytic characteristics, the expression of c-fms, c-fgr, and the CD14 cell surface antigen were induced to high levels, accompanied by the acquisition of hck and CD13 expression. In contrast, when HLA-DR, CD34, and CD33 blasts were induced to differentiate in vitro to cells with granulocytic characteristics, only hck and CD13 expression were induced. Our data suggest that the acquisition of c-fgr and/or hck expression is associated with early commitment and differentiation events in distinct myeloid lineages. Assessment of the expression of these kinases may provide a molecular tool to assign lineage in AML in conjunction with morphology, cytochemistry, and cell surface antigen expression.