The mechanism by which erythropoietin controls mammalian erythrocyte production is unknown. Labeling experiments in vitro with [3H]thymidine demonstrated DNA cleavage in erythroid progenitor cells that was accompanied by DNA repair and synthesis. Erythropoietin reduced DNA cleavage by a factor of 2.6. In the absence of erythropoietin, erythroid progenitor cells accumulated DNA cleavage fragments characteristic of those found in programmed cell death (apoptosis) by 2 to 4 hours and began dying by 16 hours. In the presence of erythropoietin, the progenitor cells survived and differentiated into reticulocytes. Thus, apoptosis is a major component of normal erythropoiesis, and erythropoietin controls erythrocyte production by retarding DNA breakdown and preventing apoptosis in erythroid progenitor cells.