Erythroid colonies from five patients with an early erythroblastic leukemia were obtained in “serum-free” cultures in the presence or absence of recombinant granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and homogeneous native erythropoietin (Epo). Erythroid colonies with abnormal morphology and karyotype could be grown in different culture conditions. Their erythroid nature was ascertained by the presence of carbonic anhydrase I and glycophorin A. Leukemic erythroid progenitors strongly differed from normal progenitors in that spontaneous colonies were always obtained, sometimes with an extremely high plating efficiency (up to 5.7%). Colonies were found to be autonomous from exogenous hematopoietic growth factors because they were still obtained with a high plating efficiency at an average of one cell per culture in the absence of any added growth factor. No evidence for an autocrine secretion of Epo or GM-CSF emerged because Epo or GM- CSF could not be detected by biologic or radioimmunologic assays from the culture supernatant or cellular extracts of the leukemic cells and that Epo or GM-CSF antibodies did not block autonomous growth. In all cases, however, hematopoietic growth factors increased the plating efficiency of the abnormal erythroid progenitors. In the two “de novo” leukemias, leukemic erythroid progenitors responded primarily to Epo, whereas in the three other patients' (chronic myeloid leukemia) blast crisis they responded maximally to GM-CSF plus Epo. Recombinant erythroid-potentiating activity had no effect in any of these cases. These results suggest that the leukemic erythroid clonogenic cells arise from expansion of erythroid progenitors at different levels of differentiation (ie, CFU-E or BFU-E, depending upon the disease) and that autonomous growth is not related to a secretion of Epo or GM-CSF.