Erythropoietin (EP) exerts its effects on erythropoiesis by binding to a cell surface receptor. We examined EP receptor expression during normal human erythroid differentiation and maturation from the burst- forming unit-erythroid (BFU-E) to the reticulocyte level. In contrast to previous studies, we assessed EP receptor number and affinity in erythroid precursors immunologically purified from fresh bone marrow aspirates or fetal liver samples and in reticulocytes purified from peripheral blood. EP receptors were quantitated by equilibrium binding experiments with 125I EP. We found that purified primary erythroblasts from both adult and fetal sources exhibited a single high-affinity (kd 100 pmol/L) binding site for EP under our experimental conditions, and 135 or 250 receptors per cell, respectively. Reticulocytes were devoid of EP receptors. We compared these data to in vitro-derived BFU-E progeny at both early and late stages of maturation. Cultured BFU-E progeny also displayed a single class of receptors of slightly lower affinity (210 to 220 pmol/L). Preparations enriched in colony-forming units-erythroid (CFU-E) and proerythroblasts (day 9 BFU-E progeny) displayed approximately 1,100 receptors per cell, whereas populations containing mature erythroblasts (day 14 BFU-E progeny) exhibited approximately 300 receptors per cell. Furthermore, information from binding experiments was complemented by autoradiography in both enriched BFU-E preparations, cultured BFU-E progeny (days 9 and 14), and marrow mononuclear cells. These studies are consistent with a peak in EP receptor expression at the CFU-E/proerythroblast stage and a decrease with further maturation to undetectable levels at the reticulocyte stage. These data examining EP receptor characteristics on freshly isolated erythroid precursor cells complement previous data on EP receptor biology using culture-derived erythroblasts.