We studied the origin of nucleated red blood cells (NRBC) in peripheral venous blood samples from 40 pregnant women carrying a male fetus, using a technique that allows direct chromosomal analysis by in situ hybridisation on immunologically and morphologically classified cells. Samples from ten nulligravid women were studied as controls. NRBC were enriched by negative magnetic activated cell sorting (miniMACS) using anti-CD45 monoclonal antibody. NRBC were detected by alkaline phosphatase anti-alkaline phosphatase immunostaining using a monoclonal anti-glycophorin A antibody. The origin of the NRBC was determined by fluorescence in situ hybridisation using X and Y specific probes. NRBC were found in 37 of the 40 pregnant women at a range of 1 to 230 per 20 ml of venous blood and in 6 of the 10 controls at a range of 1 to 3 per 20 ml of venous blood. All NRBC detected in the pregnant women were evidently of maternal origin, and in the pregnant women the number of NRBC was significantly higher (P < 0.05) than in the controls. Pregnancy per se seems to induce the appearance of maternal NRBC in the circulation, and it cannot therefore be assumed that NRBC isolated from the maternal blood are of fetal origin on the basis of morphology alone. Discrimination of fetal NRBC must occur for prenatal diagnosis of fetal genetic disorders.