Butyrate induces fetal hemoglobin (HbF) synthesis in cultures of erythroid progenitors, in primates, and in man. The mechanism by which this compound stimulates gamma-globin synthesis is unknown. In the course of butyrate catabolism, beta oxidation by mitochondrial enzymes results in the formation of two acetate molecules from each molecule of butyrate. Studies were performed to determine whether acetate itself induces HbF synthesis. In erythroid burst-forming unit (BFU-E) cultures from normal persons, and individuals with sickle cell disease and umbilical-cord blood, dose-dependent increases in gamma-globin protein and gamma mRNA were consistently observed in response to increasing acetate concentrations. In BFU-E cultures from normal adults and patients with sickle cell disease, the ratio of gamma/gamma + beta mRNA increased twofold to fivefold in response to acetate, whereas the percentage of BFU-E progeny staining with an anti-gamma monoclonal antibody (MoAb) increased approximately twofold. Acetate-induced increases in gamma-gene expression were also noted in the progeny of umbilical cord blood BFU-E, although the magnitude of change in response to acetate was less because of a higher baseline of gamma- chain production. The effect of acetate on HbF induction in vivo was evaluated using transgenic mouse and primate models. A transgenic mouse bearing a 2.5-kb mu locus control region (mu LCR) cassette linked to a 3.3-kb A gamma gene displayed a near twofold increase in gamma mRNA during a 10-day infusion of sodium acetate at a dose of 1.5 g/kg/d. Sodium acetate administration in baboons, in doses ranging from 1.5 to 6 g/kg/d by continuous intravenous infusion, also resulted in the stimulation of gamma-globin synthesis, with the percentage of HbF- containing reticulocytes (F reticulocytes) approaching 30%. Surprisingly, a dose-response effect of acetate on HbF induction was not observed in the baboons, and HbF induction was not sustained with prolonged acetate administration. These results suggest that both two- carbon fatty acids (acetate) and four-carbon fatty acids (butyrate) stimulate synthesis of HbF in vivo.