In the hematopoietic hierarchy, only stem cells are thought to be capable of long-term self-renewal. Erythroid progenitors derived from fetal or adult mammalian hematopoietic tissues are capable of short-term, or restricted (10(2)- to 10(5)-fold), ex vivo expansion in the presence of erythropoietin, stem cell factor, and dexamethasone. Here, we report that primary erythroid precursors derived from early mouse embryos are capable of extensive (10(6)- to 10(60)-fold) ex vivo proliferation. These cells morphologically, immunophenotypically, and functionally resemble proerythroblasts, maintaining both cytokine dependence and the potential, despite prolonged culture, to generate enucleated erythrocytes after 3-4 maturational cell divisions. This capacity for extensive erythroblast self-renewal is temporally associated with the emergence of definitive erythropoiesis in the yolk sac and its transition to the fetal liver. In contrast, hematopoietic stem cell-derived definitive erythropoiesis in the adult is associated almost exclusively with restricted ex vivo self-renewal. Primary primitive erythroid precursors, which lack significant expression of Kit and glucocorticoid receptors, lack ex vivo self-renewal capacity. Extensively self-renewing erythroblasts, despite their near complete maturity within the hematopoietic hierarchy, may ultimately serve as a renewable source of red cells for transfusion therapy.