In long-term marrow cultures, hemopoiesis can be maintained for several months, although erythropoiesis is normally suppressed at the most primitive level of development (the erythroid colony-forming cells). Infection of these cultures with a viral complex combining helper-independent murine leukemia virus (F-MuLV) and a spleen focus-forming virus (SFFVp) results in a productive infection of both the replication defective SFFVp and the F-MuLV. After infection, the cultures show a dramatic elevation in the numbers of late erythroid progenitor cells (CFU-E), many of which will grow in the absence of added erythropoietin, and a transient erythropoietin, independent erythropoiesis, including the production of mature, enucleated erythrocytes. Hemopoiesis eventually declines, with no evidence for the generation of Friend tumor cells. When erythropoiesis is induced in the long-term cultures by addition of anemic mouse serum before infection by polycythemia-inducing Friend virus, the generation of erythropoietin-independent CFU-E and erythrocyte formation is followed by the sustained production (greater than 40 wk) of primitive erythroid cells with low spontaneous levels (less than 5%) of hemoglobinization. Although these cells will produce spleen colonies in irradiated mice and can be cloned in soft-gel media, they do not produce autonomous, permanently growing cell lines in vitro, i.e., they retain a dependency upon the marrow-adherent layer for their continued growth. However, following a further passage on a "virgin" marrow environment, permanent cell lines can be established that are able to grow independently of environmental influences. Thus, this system is the first description of a complete in vitro system for the reproducible production and isolation of Friend virus-induced erythroid cell lines.