Human erythroid precursors express Ia antigens that have serology, function, molecular nature, and genetic regulation that are largely unknown. To approach these issues, Ia+ and Ia- subclones of the HEL human erythroleukemia cell line (HEL-DR+ and HEL-DR-, respectively) and an autologous B lymphoblastoid line (B line) were isolated. These erythroid and lymphoid lines were compared with respect to their binding of monoclonal HLA-D subregion-specific antibodies, the ability to trigger in vitro alloproliferation, expression of class II molecules, and transcription of class II-related genes. Unlike the DP+/DQ+/DR+ B lines, HEL-DR+ differentially expressed DP and DR, but not DQ specificities. Also unlike the autologous B line, HEL-DR+ appeared to be unable to trigger primary or secondary allogeneic T cell proliferation, despite the presence of responder monocytes in these cultures and irrespective of lymphokine addition. HEL-DR+ expression of bona fide class II molecules similar to B line DR heterodimers was verified by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis of material immunoprecipitated from 125I-labeled cells. Northern blot analysis of cytoplasmic RNA from these lines indicated that differential class II gene transcription could readily explain the distinct, lineage-related Ia phenotypes of HEL-DR+ and B line. In addition, the lack of invariant chain and class II transcripts in HEL-DR- implied that expression of these unlinked genes in HEL cells is co-regulated.