In the haematopoietic system, the principal function of erythropoietin (Epo) is the regulation of red blood cell production, mediated by its specific cell surface receptor (EpoR). Following the cloning of the Epo gene (EPO) and characterization of the selective haematopoietic action of Epo in erythroid lineage cells, recombinant Epo forms (epoetin-alfa, epoetin-beta and the long-acting analogue darbepoetin-alfa) have been widely used for treatment of anaemia in chronic kidney disease and chemotherapy-induced anaemia in cancer patients. Ubiquitous EpoR expression in non-erythroid cells has been associated with the discovery of diverse biological functions for Epo in non-haematopoietic tissues. During development, Epo-EpoR signalling is required not only for fetal liver erythropoiesis, but also for embryonic angiogenesis and brain development. A series of recent studies suggest that endogenous Epo-EpoR signalling contributes to wound healing responses, physiological and pathological angiogenesis, and the body's innate response to injury in the brain and heart. Epo and its novel derivatives have emerged as major tissue-protective cytokines that are being investigated in the first human studies involving neurological and cardiovascular diseases. This review focuses on the scientific evidence documenting the biological effects of Epo in non-haematopoietic tissues and discusses potential future applications of Epo and its derivatives in the clinic.