Acidic isoferritins have been identified as leukemia-associated inhibitory activity (LIA), which suppresses colony and cluster formation of colony-forming unit-granulocyte macrophages from normal donors but not from patients with leukemia. LIA was detected in all ferritin preparations tested, including ferritin isolated from normal heart, spleen, liver, and placental tissues, and from the spleens of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia and Hodgkin's disease. Purified preparations of LIA were composed almost entirely of acidic isoferritins, as determined by immunoassay, radioimmunoassay, and isoelectric focusing. The inhibitory activity in the LIA and ferritin samples was inactivated by a battery of antisera specific for ferritin, including those prepared against acidic isoferritins from normal heart and spleen tissues from patients with Hodgkin's disease, and those previously absorbed with basic isoferritins. Antisera absorbed with acidic isoferritins did not inactivate the inhibitory activity. Separation of LIA and chronic myelogenous leukemia and normal spleen ferritin by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and isoelectric focusing confirmed that the regions of peak inhibitory activity corresponded in each to an apparent molecular weight of approximately 550,000 and to a pI value of 4.7. Similar physicochemical characteristics included inactivation by methods that dissociate ferritin molecules into subunits and by treatment with trypsin, chymotrypsin, pronase, and periodate. The purified preparations were extremely stable to heat treatment. The glycoprotein nature of the inhibitory activity was substantiated because it bound to concanavalin A-Sepharose and was eluted off by alpha-methyl mannose. Inhibitory activity of the activity of the acidic isoferritins was detected at concentrations as low as 10(-17)-10(-19) M and iron saturation did not appear to be necessary for its action. These results implicate acidic isoferritins in the regulation of normal myelopoiesis and suggest a role for them in the progression of leukemia.