Iron transport in the plasma is carried out by transferrin, which donates iron to cells through its interaction with a specific membrane receptor, the transferrin receptor (TfR). A soluble form of the TfR (sTfR) has been identified in animal and human serum. Soluble TfR is a truncated monomer of tissue receptor, lacking its first 100 amino acids, which circulates in the form of a complex of transferrin and its receptor. The erythroblasts rather than reticulocytes are the main source of serum sTfR. Serum sTfR levels average 5.0+/-1.0 mg/l in normal subjects but the various commercial assays give disparate values because of the lack of an international standard. The most important determinant of sTfR levels appears to be marrow erythropoietic activity which can cause variations up to 8 times below and up to 20 times above average normal values. Soluble TfR levels are decreased in situations characterized by diminished erythropoietic activity, and are increased when erythropoiesis is stimulated by hemolysis or ineffective erythropoiesis. Measurements of sTfR are very helpful to investigate the pathophysiology of anemia, quantitatively evaluating the absolute rate of erythropoiesis and the adequacy of marrow proliferative capacity for any given degree of anemia, and to monitor the erythropoietic response to various forms of therapy, in particular allowing to predict response early when changes in hemoglobin are not yet apparent. Iron status also influences sTfR levels, which are considerably elevated in iron deficiency anemia but remain normal in the anemia of inflammation, and thus may be of considerable help in the differential diagnosis of microcytic anemia. This is particularly useful to identify concomitant iron deficiency in a patient with inflammation because ferritin values are then generally normal. Elevated sTfR levels are also the characteristic feature of functional iron deficiency, a situation defined by tissue iron deficiency despite adequate iron stores. The sTfR/ferritin ratio can thus describe iron availability over a wide range of iron stores. With the exception of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and high-grade non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and possibly hepatocellular carcinoma, sTfR levels are not increased in patients with malignancies. We conclude that soluble TfR represents a valuable quantitative assay of marrow erythropoietic activity as well as a marker of tissue iron deficiency.