Hemopoiesis is studied in vitro mainly in semisolid culture, where hemopoietic progenitors develop into discrete colonies. We describe a liquid culture system that supports the proliferation and maturation of human erythroid progenitors. We seeded mononuclear cells from the peripheral blood (PB) of patients with beta-thalassemia in liquid medium in the presence of conditioned medium from human bladder carcinoma cells. Seven days later, RBCs, normoblasts, granulocytes, and monocytes disappeared, and the number of lymphocytes dropped considerably. In contrast, erythroid colony-forming cells increased fourfold to tenfold. The next step entailed the removal of colony- stimulating factor (CSF) and CSF-secreting cells, the exclusion of macrophages by harvesting nonadherent cells, and the lysis of T lymphocytes by treatment with monoclonal rat antihuman lymphocyte antibodies (CAMPATH-1) and complement. Reculture of the remaining cells in liquid medium supplemented with recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) resulted in the exclusive development of erythroid cells, with myeloid cells reduced to less than 2%. Stainable hemoglobin (Hb) appeared on day 3, with over 85% of the population containing hemoglobin by day 11 and the cell number increasing from 0.2 X 10(6) to 3 X 10(6) mL. By permitting the manipulation of culture conditions and components and increasing the cell yield, the liquid system may facilitate quantitative analysis of growth kinetics as well as biochemical and immunologic characterization of the developing erythroid cell.