Homozygous sickle cell disease in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia is clinically mild. Circulating fetal hemoglobin levels of 16.0 +/- 7.4% were found in these anemic patients, but only 1.09 +/- 0.97% in their sickle trait parents. To determine whether these sickle cell anemia patients inherit an increased capacity to synthesize fetal hemoglobin, a radioimmunoassay of fetal and adult hemoglobin was performed on erythroid progenitor (BFU-E)-derived erythroblasts from Saudi Arabian sickle cell patients and their parents. Mean fetal hemoglobin content per BFU-E-derived erythroblast from Saudi Arabian sickle cell patients was 6.2 +/- 2.4 pg/cell or 30.4 +/- 8.6% fetal hemoglobin (normal 1.1 +/- 0.7 pg/cell and 5.1 +/- 1.8%). Linear regression analysis of % HbF in peripheral blood versus % HbF per BFU-E-derived cell showed a positive correlation with an r of 0.65. The variance of the intrinsic capacity to produce HbF may account for almost 40% (r2) of the variance of circulating fetal hemoglobin but other factors, particularly selective survival of F cells, must also contribute significantly. Despite virtually normal HbF levels in sickle trait parents of these Saudi patients, mean fetal hemoglobin production per BFU-E-derived erythroblast in these individuals was elevated to 3.42 +/- 1.79 pg/cell or 16.1 +/- 6.4% fetal hemoglobin, and the magnitude of fetal hemoglobin production found in parents correlated with that of the patients. These data indicate that the high fetal hemoglobin in Saudi sickle cell disease is genetically determined but expressed only during accelerated erythropoiesis. Further evidence of such genetic determination was provided by analysis of DNA polymorphisms within the beta-globin gene cluster on chromosome 11. This revealed a distinctive 5' globin haplotype (+ + - + +) on at least one chromosome 11 in all high F SS and AS tested. The precise relationship of this haplotype to HbF production in this population remains to be defined.