Erythrocytes have a defined lifespan in vivo, and the signals that maintain their survival in circulation or trigger their death are unknown. Here, we investigated the control of erythrocyte survival and death in an in vitro culture system where erythrocytes survived for 10 days in serum-free medium in the presence or absence of bovine serum. Death of the cells in culture was correlated with increased exposure of phosphatidylserine and increased levels of intracellular calcium. Cell death could be suppressed by supplementing the medium with human plasma or serum, resulting in a doubling of the lifespan to 20 days. Freshly isolated erythrocytes and cultured erythrocytes were both found to express Bcl-X-L and, to a lesser extent, Bak in membrane protein extracts. Treatment of the cells with a Bak-derived BH3 peptide fused to the internalization sequence of the antennapedia protein, which has previously been shown to enter cells by diffusion and antagonize Bcl-X-L, resulted in substantial cell death in erythrocyte cultures. BH3-induced death was accompanied by an immediate increase in accumulation of intracellular calcium and could be suppressed by plasma, but not by the caspase inhibitor zVAD. A BH3 peptide mutated at amino acid 78 of full-length Bak required for heterodimerization with Bcl-X-L had no effect on cell viability or calcium levels. We conclude that the BH3 peptide accelerates erythrocyte death through antagonization of Bcl-X-L. The data suggest that erythrocyte survival is promoted by survival factors in plasma and by membrane-associated Bcl-X-L. (C) 2002 by The American Society of Hematology.