1. Recombinant human erythropoietin has N-linked sugar [Tsuda et al., (1988) Biochemistry 27, 5646-5654]. Here we have demonstrated the presence of O-linked sugar (0.85 mol/mol erythropoietin) composed of sialic acid and Gal beta(1-3)GalNAc. 2. To investigate the role of these sugars, erythropoietins deglycosylated to different extents were prepared using specific glycosidases. Sugars are not essential for in vitro biological activity of erythropoietin, because the fully deglycosylated erythropoietin had the full activity when assayed with in vitro bioassay methods. Asialylation yielded erythropoietin with higher affinity to the receptor than the undigested hormone and therefore an increased in vitro activity. Although erythropoietin from which N-linked or total sugars were removed also had higher affinity for the receptor, their in vitro activity remained unchanged compared with that of the undigested erythropoietin for unknown reasons. On the other hand, removal of sialic acids or N-linked sugar abolished the in vivo biological activity completely, indicating that the presence of N-linked sugar with terminal sialic acids is required for the hormone to reach target sites; full deglycosylation resulted in total loss of the in vivo biological activity of erythropoietin. 3. Incubation of asialo-erythropoietin and fully deglycosylated recombinant human erythropoietin at 70 degrees C for 15 min decreased the biological activity to 35% and 11% of the initial activity, respectively, while the undigested erythropoietin lost no activity. Thus resistance of erythropoietin to thermal inactivation is largely due to the presence of sugars, and terminal sialic acids greatly contribute to the stability.