We have studied the effects of recombinant hematopoietic growth factors, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and/or interleukin-3 (IL-3) on the globin program of adult human erythroid progenitors (BFUe) stimulated to terminal differentiation by erythropoietin under fetal bovine serum (FBS)-supplemented or FBS- deprived culture conditions. Fetal globin production by BFUe-derived erythroblasts was assessed at the protein and mRNA level and its cellular distribution was evaluated by immunofluorescence. Although hemoglobinization and maturation of BFUe-derived erythroblasts was by and large comparable in FBS-replete versus FBS-deprived cultures, the latter had significantly less (up to 20-fold) gamma-globin and gamma- globin mRNA levels. Reduced gamma-globin in serum-deprived cultures was also reflected by a smaller proportion of erythroblasts with detectable gamma-globin by immunofluorescence. Erythroid bursts induced by either GM-CSF or IL-3 produced similar levels of gamma-globin both in FBS- supplemented and in FBS-deprived cultures. These results, obtained even in cultures of highly enriched BFUe, suggest that GM-CSF and IL-3, although they significantly increase the number and size of erythroid bursts, do not by themselves exert a direct influence on the level of fetal globin synthesis. By contrast, factor(s) present in FBS appear to exert a dominant influence on fetal globin synthesis in vitro. Although FBS-deprived conditions appear to largely abrogate the in vitro activation of fetal hemoglobin (Hb F) in normal samples, they do support increased Hb F production in samples from patients with hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin or from cord blood.