Rare nucleated fetal cells circulate within maternal blood. Noninvasive prenatal diagnosis by isolation and genetic analysis of these cells is currently being undertaken. We sought to determine if genetic evidence existed for persistent circulation of fetal cells from prior pregnancies. Venous blood samples were obtained from 32 pregnant women and 8 nonpregnant women who had given birth to males 6 months to 27 years earlier. Mononuclear cells were sorted by flow cytometry using antibodies to CD antigens 3, 4, 5, 19, 23, 34, and 38. DNA within sorted cells, amplified by PCR for Y chromosome sequences, was considered predictive of a male fetus or evidence of persistent male fetal cells. In the 32 pregnancies, male DNA was detected in 13 of 19 women carrying a male fetus. In 4 of 13 pregnancies with female fetuses, male DNA was also detected. All of the 4 women had prior pregnancies; 2 of the 4 had prior males and the other 2 had terminations of pregnancy. In 6 of the 8 nonpregnant women, male DNA was detected in CD34+CD38+ cells, even in a woman who had her last son 27 years prior to blood sampling. Our data demonstrate the continued maternal circulation of fetal CD34+ or CD34+CD38+ cells from a prior pregnancy. The prolonged persistence of fetal progenitor cells may represent a human analogue of the microchimerism described in the mouse and may have significance in development of tolerance of the fetus. Pregnancy may thus establish a long-term, low-grade chimeric state in the human female.