All-trans retinoic acid (RA) is an important morphogen in vertebrate development, a normal constituent in human adult blood and is also involved in the control of cell growth and differentiation in acute promyelocytic leukemia. We have examined the effects of RA on normal hematopoiesis by using early hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPC) stringently purified from adult peripheral blood. In clonogenetic fetal calf serum-supplemented (FCS+) or -nonsupplemented (FCS-) culture treated with saturating levels of interleukin-3 (IL-3) granulocyte- macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and erythropoietin (Ep) (combined with c-kit ligand in FCS(-)-culture conditions), RA induces a dramatic dose-dependent shift from erythroid to granulomonocytic colony formation, the latter colonies being essentially represented by granulocytic clones. This shift is apparently not caused by a recruitment phenomenon, because in FCS+ culture, the total number of colonies is not significantly modified by RA addition. In FCS- liquid- suspension culture supplemented with saturating Ep level and low-dose IL-3/GM-CSF, adult HPC undergo unilineage erythropoietic differentiation: Here again, treatment with high-dose RA induces a shift from the erythroid to granulocytic differentiation pathway. Studies on RA time-response or pulse treatment in semisolid or liquid culture show that early RA addition is most effective, thus indicating that early but not late HPC are sensitive to its action. We then analyzed the expression of the master GATA1 gene, which encodes a finger transcription factor required for normal erythroid development; addition of RA to HPC stimulated into unilineage erythropoietic differentiation in liquid culture caused a virtually complete inhibition of GATA1 mRNA induction. These results indicate that RA directly inhibits the erythroid differentiation program at the level of early adult HPC, and may lead to a shift from the erythroid to granulocytic differentiation pathway. This phenomenon is correlated with inhibition of GATA1 induction in the early stages of erythropoietic differentiation.