We used the methylcellulose-culture technique to determine the utility of the erythroid progenitor growth in vitro from nonadherent T-depleted bone marrow and peripheral blood cells in distinguishing polycythemia vera (PV) from essential thrombocythemia. Thirty patients with PV (group A) and 30 patients who presented with idiopathic marked thrombocytosis with platelet count greater than 1,000 x 10(9)/L and a normal or reduced hemoglobin (Hb) level (group B) were studied at initial presentation. Endogenous (erythropoietin-independent) erythroid colonies (EEC) were found in all patients in group A and 13 in group B. The numbers of EEC were comparable between patients in group A and the 13 patients with EEC in group B, 11 of whom with initial Hb levels ranging between 6.4 g/dL and 12.6 g/dL were found to have PV 2 to 45 months after initial evaluation. The number of EEC did not correlate with the time to the progression of polycythemia, whereas myelosuppression delayed the subsequent development of PV. Of the two patients with EEC in group B who did not develop PV, both received chemotherapy soon after presentation, which might preclude the evidence of polycythemia evolution. None of the other patients in group B who did not form EEC developed PV with a median follow-up of 24 months. This study indicates that the assessment of EEC in bone marrow or blood is helpful in early identification of PV or prediction of polycythemia evolution in patients with marked thrombocytosis in whom polycythemia has been initially masked or anemia is present.