Since the isolation and purification of erythropoietin (EPO) in 1977, the essential role of EPO for mature red blood cell production has been well established. The cloning of the EPO gene and production of recombinant human EPO led to the widespread use of EPO in treating patients with anaemia. However, the biological activity of EPO is not restricted to regulation of erythropoiesis. EPO receptor (EPOR) expression is also found in endothelial, brain, cardiovascular and other tissues, although at levels considerably lower than that of erythroid progenitor cells. This review discusses the survival and proliferative activity of EPO that extends beyond erythroid progenitor cells. Loss of EpoR expression in mouse models provides evidence for the role of endogenous EPO signalling in nonhaematopoietic tissue during development or for tissue maintenance and/or repair. Determining the extent and distribution of receptor expression provides insights into the potential protective activity of EPO in brain, heart and other nonhaematopoietic tissues.