Interferon-gamma (INF-gamma) has been shown to suppress erythropoiesis and perhaps to contribute to the anemia of chronic disease. In this study we demonstrated that the concentration of INF gamma required to suppress murine burst forming unit-erythroid (BFU-E) growth was significantly less than that required to suppress colony forming unit-erythroid (CFU-E) growth. INF gamma acted at the most primitive step in erythroid progenitor cell differentiation and proliferation, as inhibition was maximal when added at the time of BFU-E culture initiation. Inhibition was progressively less if INF gamma addition was delayed after culture initiation. The effects of INF gamma on BFU-E did not require the presence of interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha), or granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF), as its effects were not neutralized by monoclonal antibodies against IL-1 alpha, TNF alpha, or GM-CSF. This applied whether INF gamma was added to culture with individual antibodies or with a combination of all three antibodies. INF gamma was not required for IL-1 alpha- or TNF alpha-induced suppression of BFU-E, as their effects were not neutralized by a monoclonal anti-INF gamma antibody. In contrast, GM-CSF-induced suppression of BFU-E was negated by the simultaneous addition of anti-INF gamma. We have previously shown that the addition of TNF alpha does not suppress BFU-E growth in cultures from marrow depleted of macrophages. Suppression did occur, however, if a small concentration of INF gamma that does not inhibit and increasing concentration of TNF alpha were added to culture, suggesting a synergistic effect between INF-gamma and TNF alpha. These observations suggest that INF gamma is a potent direct inhibitor of erythroid colony growth in vitro. It exerts its negative regulatory effect primarily on the earliest stages of erythroid progenitor cell differentiation and proliferation, as much higher doses are required to suppress late erythroid cell development. INF gamma is also involved in GM-CSF-induced inhibition of BFU-E colony growth.