Erythropoietin is known to be a hematopoietic growth factor with a singularly specific action on the proliferation and differentiation of erythroid progenitor cells. We have observed a dose-dependent proliferative action of human recombinant erythropoietin on human umbilical vein endothelial cells and bovine adrenal capillary endothelial cells. Binding studies with radioiodinated recombinant human erythropoietin revealed a large number (approximately 27,000) of an apparent single class of receptors with an affinity in the 10(-9) M range. Linkage of the radiolabeled ligand to its receptor via a bifunctional crosslinking agent allowed us to identify an endothelial cell protein of 45 kDa as the principal receptor associated with this mitogenic effect of erythropoietin. Recombinant human erythropoietin also enhanced the migration of endothelial cells.