Cultures of peripheral blood or bone marrow erythroid progenitors display stimulated production of fetal hemoglobin. We investigated whether this stimulation is due to factors contained in the sera of the culture medium. Comparisons of gamma/gamma + beta biosynthetic ratios in erythroid colonies grown in fetal calf serum (FCS) or in charcoal treated FCS (C-FCS) showed that FCS-grown cells had significantly higher gamma/gamma + beta ratios. This increase in globin chain biosynthesis was reflected by an increase in relative amounts of steady- state gamma-globin mRNA. In contrast to its effect on adult cells, FCS failed to influence gamma-chain synthesis in fetal burst forming units- erythroid (BFU-E) colonies. There was a high correlation of gamma- globin expression in paired cultures done with C-FCS or fetal sheep serum. Dose-response experiments showed that the induction of gamma- globin expression is dependent on the concentration of FCS. These results indicate that FCS contains an activity that induces gamma- globin expression in adult erythroid progenitor cell cultures.