We have previously shown that erythroid differentiation of Friend murine leukemia cells by dimethylsulfoxide results in a decrease in sialic acid content and net negative surface charge. The mechanism responsible for the decrease in sialic acid content was examined by measuring the synthesis of sialic acid from N-acetylmannosamine and its catabolic removal from sialoconjugates during the maturation process. A decrease in the incorporation of N-[3H]acetylmannosamine into sialoglycoconjugates occured as early as 12 h after exposure to dimethyl-sulfoxide. Radioactivity incorporated into sialoglycoconjugates was relatively stable in untreated and dimethylsulfoxide-treated cells, implying that catabolic removal of sialic acid residues was not a factor in the decreased surface sialic acid content of differentiated erythroleukemia cells. In addition, no difference existed between control and treated cells in sialyltransferase activity. Significant decreases occurred, however, in the incorporation of radioactivity from N-[3H]acetylmannosamine into N-acetylneuraminic acid, CMP-N-acetylneuraminic acid and a material tentatively identified as N-acetylmannosamine-6-phosphate, 48 h after the addition of dimethylsulfoxide. The decrease in sialic acid biosynthesis in differentiated erythroleukemia cells was reflected by an 83% decrease in the amount of radioactively-labeled sialic acid released by neuraminidase treatment of cells exposed to dimethylsulfoxide. These findings are consistent with a cellular aging phenomenon triggered by the polar solvent-induced differentiation of the leukemic cells into more mature forms.