Homeobox-containing genes are a network of genes encoding DNA-binding proteins highly conserved throughout evolution. They are involved in the control of normal development as well as in the regulation of gene expression in adult differentiating systems, including hematopoiesis. Aberrant expression of homeobox-containing genes has recently been related to leukemic phenotype. Human homeobox-containing genes of the HOX family are organized into 4 large clusters. We have analyzed the expression of HOX genes in different types of human leukemia to investigate whether the physical organization of HOX loci reflects a regulatory hierarchy involved in the differentiation of hematopoietic cells or whether HOX gene expression might contribute to the leukemic phenotype. Our results show that HOX genes are coordinately regulated in blocks in myeloid cells whereas they appear to function as isolated genes in lymphoid cells. Six contiguous genes of the HOX2 locus, highly expressed in acute non-lymphocytic leukemia, are switched off in chronic myelogenous leukemia, suggesting that down-regulation of HOX2 genes might be required for cell maturation of the myeloid lineages. In contrast, a few scattered genes are active in lymphoid populations. These observations suggest that hematopoietic cells express a repertoire of HOX genes characteristic of a particular cell lineage at a specific stage of differentiation. The characteristic patterns of HOX gene expression may reflect the potentially important role that these genes play in cell lineage determination during both normal and leukemic hematopoiesis.