Slowly cycling cells are believed to play a critical role in tumor progression and metastatic dissemination. The goal of this study was to develop a method for in vivo detection of slowly cycling cells. To distinguish these cells from more rapidly proliferating cells that constitute the vast majority of cells in tumors, we used the well-known effect of label dilution due to division of cells with normal cycle and retention of contrast agent in slowly dividing cells. To detect slowly cycling cells, melanoma cells were labeled with iron oxide particles. After labeling, we observed dilution of contrast agent in parallel with cell proliferation in the vast majority of normally cycling cells. A small and distinct subpopulation of iron-retaining cells was detected by flow cytometry after 20 days of in vitro proliferation. These iron-retaining cells exhibited high expression of a biological marker of slowly cycling cells, JARID1B. After implantation of labeled cells as xenografts into immunocompromised mice, iron-retaining cells were detected in vivo and ex vivo by magnetic resonance imaging that was confirmed by Prussian Blue staining. Magnetic resonance imaging detects not only iron retaining melanoma cells but also iron positive macrophages. Proposed method opens up opportunities to image subpopulation of melanoma cells, which is critical for continuous tumor growth. Magn Reson Med, 2011. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.