The number of steps involved in the pathogenesis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is unclear. The initiating event would be expected to exist in all leukemic cells, but subsequent events may be subclonal. If several genetic events occur, they may cooperate within the same cell or be alternatively acquired by different subclones. These possibilities cannot be adequately analyzed in DNA prepared directly from patient specimens. In this study, N-ras mutations demonstrable in DNA prepared from peripheral blood of 10 patients with AML were examined in primary in vitro colonies (AML-colony-forming units [CFU]) grown from these patients. Both colonies containing the mutant gene and colonies containing normal allele only were obtained from each patient. The proportion of colonies containing no mutant allele varied among patients (5% to 57%). A subset of mutation containing colonies appeared to have lost the normal allele in nine of 10 AML cases analyzed. In the four cases with two N-ras mutations, the two mutations were found to exist in different subclones. In these cases, macroscopic colonies (AML- MCFU) were also obtained using an assay system designed to select for earlier clonogenic cells than in the AML-CFU assay. The N12cys mutation in AML10 was found in the CFU, but not in the MCFU, and the N12asp mutation in AML43 was found in the MCFU, but not in the CFU. These results suggest that N-ras mutation is a postinitiation event in AML that contributes to the outgrowth of more malignant subclones. Where two mutations are found in a case of AML, they appear to have been acquired by separate subclones, which may show different degrees of differentiation.