Programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis, is frequently initiated when cells are deprived of specific trophic factors. To investigate if accelerated apoptosis contributes to the pathogenesis of Diamond- Blackfan anemia (DBA), a rare pure red blood cell aplasia of childhood, we studied the effect of erythropoietin (epo) deprivation on erythroid progenitors and precursors from the bone marrow of DBA patients as compared with hematologically normal controls. Apoptosis in response to epo deprivation was evaluated by enumeration of colony-forming unit- erythroid (CFU-E)- and burst-forming unit-erythroid (BFU-E)-derived colonies in plasma clot semisolid culture and by the identification of typical DNA oligosomes by gel electrophoresis from marrow mononuclear cells in liquid culture. In all DBA patients there was a marked decrease in CFU-E- and BFU-E-derived colony formation compared with normal controls at comparable time points of epo deprivation, with a complete loss of CFU-E-derived colonies in semisolid culture by 9 hours of epo deprivation versus 48 hours in controls. The BFU-E-derived colony response to epo deprivation displayed a similar pattern of decrement. Apoptotic changes assessed by the presence of characteristic DNA fragmentation began in the absence of epo deprivation and were readily detected within 3 hours of epo deprivation in DBA cultures versus 9 hours in controls. We conclude that DBA is characterized by accelerated apoptosis as measured by the loss of erythroid progenitor clonogenicity and increased progenitor and precursor DNA fragmentation leading to the formation of characteristic oligosomes, consistent with an intrinsic erythroid-progenitor defect in which increased sensitivity to epo deprivation results in erythroid failure.