We examined the effects of activin A on the proliferation and differentiation of immature hematopoietic progenitors prepared from peripheral blood (PB) using methylcellulose and liquid-suspension culture. In a kinetic analysis, colony formation by PB granulocyte- macrophage colony-forming unit (CFU-GM) was delayed in a dose-dependent manner by the addition of activin A only when stimulated with interleukin-3 (IL-3), but not when stimulated with granulocyte colony- stimulating factor (G-CSF), granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), or stem cell factor (SCF) plus G-CSF. DNA-synthesizing CFU-GM was increased by IL-3, but this effect was abolished by activin A. In contrast, PB erythroid burst-forming unit (BFU-E) was accelerated by the addition of activin A only when exposed to IL-3 plus erythropoietin (Epo), but not when exposed to Epo or Epo plus SCF. DNA- synthesizing BFU-E was increased by IL-3 and activin A, alone and additively in combination. In a mixed culture of myeloid and erythroid progenitors, activin A increased the numbers of BFU-E and CFU-Mix colonies at concentrations of 1 and 10 ng/mL and decreased the number of CFU-GM colonies in a dose-dependent manner. However, in a liquid- suspension culture of erythroid progenitors, activin A decreased total cell count and the percentage of hemoglobin-containing cells only when cells were exposed to IL-3 plus Epo. These results indicate that activin A suppresses the proliferation of IL-3-responsive CFU-GM progenitors and stimulates the proliferation and differentiation of IL- 3-responsive BFU-E progenitors, and suggest that activin A acts as a commitment factor of immature hematopoietic progenitors for erythroid differentiation.