Erythroid progenitors (BFU-E) from adult human peripheral blood generate erythroid bursts in semisolid culture supplemented with at least two growth factors, ie, erythropoietin (Ep) and interleukin-3 (IL- 3) or granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF). We have analyzed the hematopoietin(s) requirement of human embryonic BFU- E, as compared to that of adult peripheral blood progenitors: This was basically evaluated in fetal calf serum-free (FCS-) methylcellulose culture of partially or highly purified progenitors treated with human recombinant hemopoietins. At a low seeding concentration (2 x 10(3) cells/dish) purified embryonic BFU-E generated erythroid bursts when treated only with Ep: Further addition of IL-3 or GM-CSF had no effect on BFU-E cloning efficiency, although the size of bursts was increased in a dose-dependent manner, particularly with IL-3. At a similar seeding concentration (ie, 10(3) cells/dish), purified adult BFU-E efficiently generated erythroid bursts in the presence of Ep and GM-CSF or IL-3, while only few small erythroid colonies were observed in the presence of Ep alone. In a final series of experiments, unicellular FCS- cultures of purified embryonic BFU-E gave rise to erythroid bursts in the presence of Ep alone. Furthermore, the cloning efficiency induced by Ep was unmodified by further addition of GM-CSF or IL-3. Unicellular FCS- cultures of highly purified adult peripheral blood progenitors generated no erythroid bursts in the presence of Ep alone. The addition of GM-CSF or IL-3 was required to generate BFU-E colonies. These studies indicate that in human embryonic life, BFU-E require only Ep for efficient erythroid burst formation, while IL-3 and GM-CSF essentially enhance the proliferation of early erythropoietic precursors.