We have found that the small population of cells in human marrow that are characterized by their expression of CD34 can be readily subdivided into two apparently nonoverlapping subpopulations of approximate equal size, one expressing CD45RO and one CD45R. Functional studies of these subpopulations revealed that all of the primitive erythroid colony-forming cells (BFU-E) are CD34+ CD45RO+. Similarly, more primitive cells that give rise to both erythroid and granulopoietic colony-forming cells after being maintained for 5 wk on confluent irradiated long-term marrow culture feeder layers, also show this phenotype. In contrast, most granulopoietic colony-forming cells are CD34+ CD45RO- cells. The differential expression of CD45 isoforms on distinct functional subpopulations of hemopoietic cells is consistent with the concept that these molecules play an important role in the differentiation or activation of primitive, normally quiescent, hemopoietic cells. The presence of CD45RO and the lack of CD45R on human cells capable of initiating hemopoiesis in the long-term marrow culture system correspond to the reported lack of CD45R on transplantable hemopoietic stem cells in rodents and may be a useful addition to strategies for human stem cell purification, or for purging CD45R+ leukemic cells.