The bcr-abl translocation characteristic of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) was detected by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) modified to use mRNA as the starting material. Amplification of a sequence spanning the bcr-abl junction was obtained by using peripheral blood cells from all of 20 patients with classic CML, one patient with acute lymphoblastic leukemia probably secondary to CML, and two cell lines derived from patients with CML. The presence of bcr exon 3 in the mRNA was determined from the size of the amplified sequence; it was present in 14 and absent in seven patients. One leukemic cell per 1,000 nonleukemic cells could be readily detected, thus indicating the great sensitivity of the method. This technique is of routine value in CML both for diagnosis and for following the course of treatment.