The biologic activity of human biosynthetic granulocyte-monocyte colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) was investigated in serum-free culture of erythroid progenitors derived from adult peripheral blood. The morphology of erythroid bursts and the cloning efficiency of BFU-E under serum-free conditions were similar to those observed in dishes with fetal bovine serum (FBS). For these experiments, progenitor cells were partially purified by Ficoll-Paque density centrifugation, adherence to a plastic surface, and complement-mediated cytotoxicity of Leu-1+ elements. For some studies, blastlike cells were harvested directly from 6-day-old semisolid cultures. In serum-free culture of the light-density cell fraction, biosynthetic erythropoietin (Ep) was sufficient for formation of pure and mixed erythroid colonies whereas GM-CSF was required for granulocyte-monocytic colonies. When adherent and Leu-1+ cells were removed, or when in vitro differentiated blast cells were used as a source of progenitors, neither Ep or GM-CSF alone induced colony formation. In dishes supplemented with both growth factors, erythroid bursts were detected. Although the presence of GM- CSF alone did not induce formation of any colony or clusters, BFU-E were recorded when Ep was added 8 days later, suggesting that BFU-E could be maintained. Terminal maturation of the resulting erythroid bursts was delayed by 8 days. These results provide evidence that GM- CSF acts directly on early erythroid progenitors. Furthermore, they suggest that both Ep and GM-CSF are necessary to start the differentiation process.