In refractory anemia (RA) and refractory anemia with ringed sideroblasts (RARS) a discrepancy is observed between the decreased in vitro erythroid colony formation and the normal or increased number of normoblasts in the bone marrow. To study the in vivo and in vitro erythropoiesis in more detail erythron transferrin uptake (ETU), soluble transferrin receptor (sTfR) and erythroid in vitro colony formation were performed in 24 patients with RA and five patients with RARS. These results were correlated with bone marrow morphology and transfusion dependency. Increased (mean, 124.9; range, 74-225 micromol/l blood/day) and normal (mean, 60.6; range, 50-71) ETU values were observed in 51% and 28% of the cases, whereas 21% of the cases demonstrated a diminished ETU value (mean, 35.8; range, 28-46), which correlated significantly with sTfR in cases with RA (P < 0.05, r = 0.64). A significant difference in ETU values was observed between RA (mean, 77.6; range, 28-189) and RARS (mean, 144.0; range, 59-225, P < 0.05). Most of the cases (73%) with increased ETU values showed an augmented percentage of erythroblasts in the bone marrow, which was inversely related with the serum Epo levels (P < 0.05, r = 0.51). However no correlation was found between the ETU values and the in vitro erythroid colony formation. Transfusion dependency was associated with normal to increased ETU levels (P < 0.05) and cytogenetic abnormalities (P < 0.05). These observations demonstrate that different patterns of defects can be observed in the erythropoiesis of RA and RARS patients whereby normal to increased ETU levels and the presence of cytogenetic abnormalities differentiate between cases of RA with ineffective erythropoiesis associated with regular transfusions and cases who are relatively transfusion independent.