The effect of 5-azacytidine on erythroid precursors and progenitors was studied in nine patients with sickle cell anemia or severe thalassemia. Each patient received the drug intravenously for 5 or 7 d. 5-Azacytidine caused a four- to sixfold increase in γ-messenger RNA concentration in bone marrow cells of eight of the nine patients and decreased the methylation frequency of a specific cytosine residue in the γ-globin gene promoter in all nine patients. Within 2 d of the start of drug treatment there was a rise in the percentage of reticulocytes containing fetal hemoglobin (HbF; F-reticulocytes) without a significant change in the total number of reticulocytes, which suggested that there was a direct action of 5-azacytidine on erythroid precursors. Late erythroid progenitors (CFU-E), present in bone marrow after 2 d of drug administration, formed colonies containing an increased amount of HbF as compared with control colonies. Moreover, the number of CFU-E derived colonies was not decreased at these early times, which suggested that there was a direct action of 5-azacytidine on erythroid progenitors in the absence of cytotoxicity. Exposure of normal bone marrow cells in tissue culture to 5-azacytidine for 24 h reproduced both of these effects as judged during subsequent colony formation. The combined direct effects of 5-azacytidine on both the erythroid precursor and progenitor compartments resulted in an increase in HbF synthesis that was sustained for 2-3 wk. Toxicity to bone marrow as reflected by cytoreduction was evident after treatment in some patients but was not accompanied by an increase in HbF production. A correlation was found between the effects of 5-azacytidine on bone marrow, as assessed by in vitro measurements, and the hematological response of the individual patients to drug treatment.