BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVE: Erythropoietin (Epo) is the primary growth factor for the red cell lineage but treatment with recombinant human Epo (rHuEpo) has been shown to increase platelet counts. In several animal species treatment with rHuEpo stimulated platelet production, but platelet counts tended to normalize after 1-2 weeks and large, chronic doses even caused thrombocytopenia. This paper aims to review the evidence about the effects of Epo on megakaryopoiesis. INFORMATION SOURCES: I examined the literature published in journals covered by Medline(R)a concerning the effects of Epo, hypoxia and iron deficiency on megakaryopoiesis and platelets. The reference list of each article was reviewed to try to identify further contributions. STATE OF THE ART: In vivo data have shown that moderate Epo stimulation, i.e. that produced by standard doses of rHuEpo, short-term hypoxia or moderate iron deficiency, causes a moderate elevation of platelet counts, whereas intense Epo stimulation, as produced by high doses of rHuEpo, prolonged hypoxia or severe iron deficiency, causes some degree of thrombocytopenia. In the latter case, there appears to be a diphasic response to Epo, the initial positive response (a stimulation of platelet production) being followed by thrombocytopenia. Contrarily to the thrombocytopenia due to increased platelet destruction induced by other growth factors, Epo-induced thrombocytopenia is the result of an inhibition of platelet production. CONCLUSION AND PERSPECTIVE: Stem-cell competition between erythroid and platelet precursors appears to be the cause of these phenomena in situations of prolonged, intense stimulation by Epo. In vitro data support the existence of a common erythrocytic and megakaryocytic precursor. It remains to be determined whether these effects of rHuEpo are a result of the dose itself or of the magnitude of the erythropoietic effect of that dose. It is not known whether a lower dose given in a patient with decreased marrow function would bring about the same biological effects as those induced by high doses of rHuEpo in the presence of a normal marrow function. Caution should be exercised before using high doses of hematopoietic growth factors.