The sensitivity to recombinant human interferon-alpha 2a (IFN) of peripheral blood granulocyte-macrophage colony-forming units (PB CFU-GM) from patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) was studied in a semi-solid clonogenic assay, and compared with normal PB CFU-GM. Like normal PB CFU-GM, the growth of CML PB CFU-GM in vitro was found to be dependent on the plating concentration used. The optimal CFU-GM growth occurred when CML PB mononuclear cells (MNC) were plated at low concentrations in the range of 0.01-0.1 x 10(5)/ml, compared to the range of 0.3-3.0 x 10(5)/ml optimal for CFU-GM growth in normal subjects. The optimal plating concentration for CML PB CFU-GM was similar to that observed in PB collected from patients with ovarian carcinoma during haematological recovery following chemotherapy-induced myelosuppression (recovery phase). The recovery phase PB was used as a source of non-leukaemic cells with a higher incidence of CFU-GM similar to that of CML. IFN produced a dose-related inhibition of CFU-GM growth in normal, recovery phase ovarian carcinoma and CML, PB MNC. The IFN concentration required to inhibit 50% of the CFU-GM in culture (LD50) was found to be significantly influenced by the plating concentration. When cells were cultured at 1.0 x 10(5) MNC/ml the mean LD50 for 7 CML patients was similar to that in normal (n = 5) or recovery phase (n = 5) peripheral blood, 273 i.u./ml, 1047 i.u./ml and 795 i.u./ml, respectively. In contrast when CML cells were cultured at 0.03 x 10(5) MNC/ml the concentration for optimal CML CFU-GM growth, the mean LD50 was significantly lower than that in normal PB and recovery phase PB, 4 i.u./ml, 251 i.u./ml and 78 i.u./ml, respectively (p less than 0.05). This is the first report of a differential sensitivity to IFN between CML and non-CML progenitors using an optimized PB CFU-GM assay system and proposes that further study of the in vitro culture of CML progenitors may increase our understanding of the clinical effects of IFN.