Erythroid progenitor cells isolated from patients with polycythemia vera (PV) proliferate and differentiate in methylcellulose in the absence of exogenous erythropoietin (EPO). To investigate the potential role of the erythropoietin receptor (EPO-R) in the pathogenesis of PV, we cultured bone marrow-derived or peripheral blood-derived erythroid progenitors in the presence of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) specific for EPO or EPO-R. Mononuclear cells were obtained from 9 healthy adults and 9 PV patients by Ficoll-Hypaque gradients and cultured with or without EPO in methylcellulose for 12 days under standard or serum-free conditions. Neutralizing anti-EPO and anti-EPO-R MoAbs, added to cultures at day 0, caused dose-dependent growth inhibition of all normal burst-forming units-erythroid (BFU-E) derived from health adult controls. The MoAbs had no effect on the growth of nonerythroid progenitor cells under the same culture conditions. In contrast, neutralizing antibodies distinguished two classes of BFU-E derived from PV patients. Class I BFU-E from PV patients were EPO- dependent. These progenitors, like those derived from healthy adults, had normal EPO dose-dependent growth characteristics and showed a normal period of EPO requirement in vitro that extended 6 days after the initiation of culture. These results indicate that EPO exerts its critical effect early during erythroid differentiation; the addition of neutralizing antibodies to normal progenitors after 6 days had no effect on the subsequent size or maturation of the colonies. Class II BFU-E from PV patients were EPO-independent. They proliferated and differentiated even in the presence of high concentrations of neutralizing anti-EPO or anti-EPO-R MoAbs. We conclude that the class II BFU-E from PV patients are independent of free EPO.