To examine the characteristics of 'young' human red cells, we studied blood from seven healthy male volunteers who developed systemic reticulocytosis during a 3-week blood donation period. Each of these subjects donated a total of 6 units (450 ml/unit) of blood (2 units/week for 3 weeks) with subcutaneous recombinant erythropoietin (SC rEPO; 200 U/kg daily for 3 weeks). Two of these subjects were also studied with a similar protocol in the absence of rEPO (4.5 +/- 0.5 units donated). SC rEPO administration was associated with an increased K content of the erythrocyte and with the appearance of hypochromic cells, which were initially normocytic and then became normochromic and microcytic. Measurements of cation transport revealed that, with the exception of the Na-K-Cl cotransport, all the systems studied increased their activities following blood donations with or without SC rEPO. The increase was highest in the K-Cl cotransport (2- and 5-fold for control and rEPO parts of the study, respectively), while the Na-K pump increased slightly in control and 40% with rEPO. The Na-Li countertransport increased 40% and 100% in the control and rEPO parts of the study, respectively. Concomitant with increased ion transport activity, electron microscopic studies of plasma and red cells of subjects receiving SC rEPO showed the presence of circulating exosomes and cytoplasmic multivesicular bodies. The transferrin receptor was detected in the circulating exosomes, thereby providing evidence that, as do nonhuman red cells, maturing human reticulocytes shed exosome-associated transferrin receptors.