Measurements of circulating transferrin (Tf) receptor are useful in assessing erythropoiesis; however, steps involved in the generation of soluble Tf receptor from cellular receptor are incompletely understood. To obtain a better understanding of this process, we investigated the loss of Tf receptor during terminal maturation of rat reticulocytes in vitro. Previous studies have identified Tf receptor-containing vesicles in the culture medium of maturing reticulocytes. In the present study, vesicle-free reticulocyte culture medium was found to contain functional and immunoreactive soluble Tf receptor, which increased over time. During a 44-hour incubation, Tf receptor on reticulocytes decreased by approximately 69%, while, of the Tf receptor shed to the medium, 65% was present in vesicles and 35% was in a soluble form. Isolated vesicles reincubated in fresh medium released soluble Tf receptor to the medium. On sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), the isolated soluble receptor protein was mainly 190 Kd and 95 Kd under nonreducing and reducing conditions, respectively, similar in size to the vesicular and cellular receptor. Our studies show that loss of Tf receptor from rat reticulocytes during maturation in vitro involves shedding of cellular Tf receptor in vesicles and release of soluble receptor from these vesicles.