Isolating fetal erythroblasts from first trimester maternal blood offers a promising non-invasive alternative for prenatal diagnosis. The aim of this study was to characterize the biological properties of first trimester primitive erythroblasts to facilitate their enrichment from first trimester maternal blood. Primitive erythroblasts were the predominant cell type until 12 weeks gestation, after which time their numbers declined steeply; 100% were epsilon-globin-positive versus <0.06% definitive erythroblasts. Buoyant densities of first trimester fetal erythroblasts ranged from 1.077 to 1.130 g/ml, and optimal recoveries were obtained with Percoll 1118. Although primitive erythroblasts carried a negative surface charge and were resistant to NH(4)Cl lysis, these properties had only a limited role in fetal cell enrichment. Immunophenotyping showed that primitive, like definitive, erythroblasts were GPA+, CD47+, CD45- and CD35-, whereas CD71 expression was weak/undetectable on primitive erythroblasts but strongly positive on 100% of definitive erythroblasts; primitive erythroblasts were also CD36- whereas definitive erythroblasts were CD36+. We therefore used CD45/GPA selection of Percoll 1118-separated cells to demonstrate successful enrichment of male epsilon-globin-positive fetal erythroblasts from model mixtures, and as proof of principle from some first trimester maternal blood samples. Fetal cell enrichment protocols based on first trimester epsilon-globin-positive primitive erythroblasts may allow reliable enrichment of fetal cells from maternal blood for early non-invasive prenatal diagnosis of genetic disorders.