The expression and extracellular release of transferrin receptor (TR) was investigated by in vitro model system of erythroid differentiation. Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells were cultured with interleukin- 3 (IL-3) for 7 days, and with erythropoietin (EPO) for an additional 8 days. After EPO stimulation, IL-3-stimulated blastic cells were serially differentiated into mature erythrocytes. [3H]-thymidine incorporation of cultured cells increased linearly from day 0 to 5, followed by a decrease. Flow cytometric analysis showed an increase of TR expression from day 0 to 5, followed by a slight decrease. By metabolic labeling with [35S]methionine and immunoprecipitation, the cell lysate exhibited a 95-kD band corresponding to the intact TR on sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis/autoradiography at day 5, when polychromatic erythroblasts had their peak. The culture supernatant solubilized by tween-20 exhibited a 95-kD and an 85-kD band on days 5 and 8, which corresponded to the intact and the truncated forms of TR, respectively. The 95-kD band was more intense at day 5 than at day 8. The reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction assay showed that the receptor- mRNA expression was parallel to receptor synthesis. Thus, the synthesis and expression of TR on erythrocytes is associated mainly with cell proliferation in the early phase, and with both cell proliferation and hemoglobin production in the middle to late phases of maturation. Concomitantly, the extracellular release of TR from erythrocytes occurs in the middle to late phases of maturation. These data suggest that polychromatic erythroblasts release soluble TR as both intact and truncated forms and may be an important source of serum TR implicated as an index for erythropoietic activity in the marrow.