The turnover rates of beta and gamma globin messenger RNAs and of beta and gamma globin protein synthesis in human reticulocytes have been measured. Our goal was to determine whether beta globin mRNA is significantly more stable than gamma globin mRNA during the final stages of erythroid cell maturation. Such a result could explain the reported increase in the beta-gamma protein synthetic ratio during erythroid maturation. As determined by molecular hybridization and cell- free translation assays, the half-lives of both mRNAs are 20 to 29 hours in adult and neonatal reticulocytes. Protein synthetic capacity in intact cells decays with a half-life of six to eight hours, but beta protein synthesis declines at the same rate as gamma. Therefore, the changing ratio of fetal to adult hemoglobin synthesis during late erythroid maturation does not result from differences in mRNA turnover rates or changes in translation efficiencies. These data, coupled with those obtained with immature erythroid cells (Farquhar et al, Dev Biol 85: 403, 1981), suggest that, during erythroid maturation, the gamma- beta globin protein synthesis ratio declines because gamma gene transcription ceases earlier than beta gene transcription. Our results also indicate that the protein synthetic machinery, not the quantity of mRNA, becomes rate-limiting for globin production in cultured reticulocytes.