The cytokine hormones prolactin and erythropoietin mediate tissue-specific developmental outcomes by activating their cognate receptors, prolactin receptor (PrlR) and erythropoietin receptor (EpoR), respectively. The EpoR is essential for red blood cell formation, whereas a principal function of PrlR is in the development of the mammary gland during pregnancy and lactation [Ormandy, C., et al. (1997) Genes Dev. 11, 167-178]. The instructive model of differentiation proposes that such distinct, cytokine-dependent developmental outcomes are a result of cytokine receptor-unique signals that bring about induction of lineage-specific genes. This view was challenged by our finding that an exogenously expressed PrlR could rescue EpoR(-/-) erythroid progenitors and mediate their differentiation into red blood cells. Together with similar findings in other hematopoietic lineages, this suggested that cytokine receptors do not play an instructive role in hematopoietic differentiation. Here, we show that these findings are not limited to the hematopoietic system but are of more general relevance to cytokine-dependent differentiation. We demonstrate that the developmental defect of PrlR(-/-) mammary epithelium is rescued by an exogenously expressed chimeric receptor (prl-EpoR) containing the PrlR extracellular domain joined to the EpoR transmembrane and intracellular domains. Like the wild-type PrlR, the prl-EpoR rescued alveologenesis and milk secretion in PrlR(-/-) mammary epithelium. These results suggest that, in cell types as unrelated as erythrocytes and mammary epithelial cells, cytokine receptors employ similar, generic signals that permit the expression of predetermined, tissue-specific differentiation programs.