Bone marrow conditioned media (BMCM) increases burst number and the incorporation of 59Fe into heme by bursts when peripheral blood or bone marrow cells are cultured at limiting serum concentrations. Burst- promoting activity (BPA) has now been purified approximately 300-fold from this source by ion-exchange chromatography on DEAE-Sephadex and absorption chromatography on hydroxyapatite agarose gel. Marrow BPA increased burst number and hemoglobin (Hb) synthesis in a dose- dependent manner. A larger increase in Hb synthesis than in burst number was consistently observed, which was probably a consequence of the increase in the number of cells per burst that occurs in the presence of BPA. The role of BPA in culture could be distinguished from erythropoietin (Ep), since no bursts grew in the absence of Ep, whether or not BPA was present, and since it had no effect on the growth of erythroid colonies scored at day 5 of culture. Our purified fraction did not support the growth of CFU-C in culture. Activity was stable at temperatures of 70 degrees C or lower for 10 min; exposure to 80 degrees C resulted in approximately 50% loss of activity. BPA was completely inactivated by treatment at 100 degrees C for 10 min. Thus, human bone marrow cells produce a heat-sensitive factor that specifically promotes the growth of early erythroid progenitors in culture.