A glycoprotein that regulates the deposition of C3b on the erythrocyte surface, called decay-accelerating factor or DAF, is absent from the red blood cells (RBC) of patients with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), explaining in part their abnormal sensitivity to complement. We used a specific antiserum to DAF, flow microfluorometry, and clonogenic assays for erythroid progenitor cells to study PNH erythropoiesis in vitro. By fluorescence-activated cell sorter analysis, all RBC from normal individuals are DAF+. In contrast, the RBC of six patients with PNH showed discrete populations of DAF- cells (10-44%; x +/- SEM = 31 +/- 6%). The DAF- RBC population was partly eliminated by prior acidified serum lysis. To determine whether erythropoietic progenitors expressed DAF, bone marrow cells were sorted by flow microfluorometry and the separated DAF+ and DAF- populations then cultured in vitro. In two normal individuals, but also in six patients with PNH, erythroid colonies formed only from cells in the DAF+ fraction. However, a variable proportion of the normoblast progeny of these DAF+ progenitor cells from patients with PNH was DAF-. Individual bursts removed from cultures of PNH bone marrow showed two discrete populations by fluorescence; the majority of normoblasts were DAF-, only 3 of 27 individual bursts had greater than 50% DAF+ cells, and in three patients, DAF- normoblasts averaged 79%. In contrast, the progeny of individual bursts from normal individuals comprised a unimodal DAF+ population. In each PNH patient, one normal burst (greater than 80% DAF+ normoblasts) was detected, possibly reflecting a normal residual population of erythroid progenitors. By the criterion of DAF expression, there was no evidence of separate populations of normal and PNH type progenitor cells. The phenotypically normal erythroid progenitors of PNH bone marrow acquire the PNH characteristics during differentiation in vitro.