In order to examine the contribution of cell surface materials to erythroid burst-promoting activity (BPA), we separated media conditioned by a variety of human cell types into pellets and supernatants by centrifugation. When added to serum-restricted cultures of nonadherent human marrow cells, pellets contained about half of the total stimulatory activity. Freeze-fracture electron microscopy of the pellets revealed the presence of unilamellar membrane vesicles ranging from 0.10 to 0.40 microM in diameter. The amount of BPA in culture increased with added vesicle concentration in a saturable fashion. Preparation of leukocyte conditioned medium (LCM) from 125I-wheat germ agglutinin labeled cells and studies comparing the glycoprotein composition of vesicles with that of leukocyte plasma membranes suggest that LCM-derived vesicles are of plasma membrane origin. Moreover, partially purified leukocyte plasma membrane preparations also contained BPA. While disruption of vesicles by freezing/thawing and hypotonic lysis did not alter BPA, heat, trypsin, or pronase treatment removed greater than 65% of BPA, implying that vesicle surface rather than intravesicular molecules express BPA. Results of BPA assays performed in two-layer clots indicated that proximity to target cells is required for vesicle BPA expression. We conclude that membrane vesicles spontaneously shed from cell surfaces may be important regulators of erythroid burst proliferation in vitro.