BACKGROUND A comparison was made between flow cytometric and conventional radioisotopic assays in the determination of the clearance or survival of small volumes of (51)chromium-labeled D+ red cells after injection into volunteers. STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS Four clearance studies were performed using 4 mL of autologous D+ cells coated with anti-D at two concentrations (5 or 10 microg anti-D/mL red cells) transfused to two subjects at separate times. Five survival studies were carried out using 5 mL of frozen-thawed D+ cells transfused to five D- subjects with no detectable anti-D. Sequential blood samples were taken for gamma counting and flow cytometry. Several methods were used to stain the transfused red cells, and the data were analyzed by using three flow cytometers. RESULTS The determination of red cell clearance or survival by radioactivity measurements gave results consistent with published data. However, none of the flow cytometric assays exhibited the necessary sensitivity or accuracy in quantitation of the rare events to provide reliable data for the calculation of the initial clearance rate, the red cell half-life, or the mean cell lifespan, although rough estimates of red cell clearance were obtained in some subjects. This inability to accurately enumerate rare fluorescence-labeled cells was due mainly to the presence of "background" events, which were a considerable problem in some samples, when the coating level of anti-D was less than 3000 molecules of IgG per cell. CONCLUSION Flow cytometry may enable the crude estimation of the percentage of small volumes (<5 mL) of transfused D+ red cells, but in this study it was found that this method was not sufficiently accurate to determine the initial clearance rate, red cell half-life, or mean cell lifespan. If the proportion of transfused cells in the recipient is about 0.2 percent or less, the use of radioisotopes for labeling cells for quantitative in vivo red cell clearance or survival data should remain the method of choice.