We have evaluated the effects of the flt3 receptor ligand (FL) on hematopoietic progenitors/stem cells (HPCs/HSCs) stringently purified from adult peripheral blood and grown in different culture systems. In these experiments HPCs/HSCs were treated with FL +/- kit ligand (KL) +/- monocyte colony-stimulatory factor (M-CSF). In clonogenetic HPC culture supplemented with interleukin-3 (IL-3)/granulomonocyte-CSF (GM- CSF)/erythropoietin (Epo), FL potentiates colony-forming unit (CFU)-GM proliferation in terms of colony number and size, but exerts little effect on burst-forming units-erythroid (BFU-E) and CFU-granulocyte erythroid megakaryocyte macrophage (CFU-GEMM) growth, whereas KL enhances the proliferation of all HPC types; combined FL+KL +/- M-CSF treatment causes a striking shift of CFU-GM colonies from granulocytic to monocytic differentiation. In liquid suspension HPC culture, FL alone induces differentiation along the monocytic and to a minor extent the basophilic lineages, whereas M-CSF alone stimulates prevalent monocytic differentiation but little cell proliferation: combined M- CSF+FL treatment causes both proliferation and almost exclusive monocytic differentiation (97% monocytes in fetal calf serum-rich (FCS+) culture conditions, mean value). At primitive HPC level, FL potentiates the clonogenetic capacity of colony-forming units-blast (CFU-B) and high proliferative potential colony-forming cells (HPP-CFC) in primary and secondary culture; KL exerts a similar action, and additive effects are induced by FL combined with KL. More important, addition of FL alone causes a significant amplification of the number of long-term culture-initiating cells (LTC-ICs), ie, putative repopulating HSCs, whereas this effect is not induced by KL. The FL effects correlate with flt3 mRNA expression in HPCs differentiating throught the erythroid or GM pathway in liquid suspension culture: (1) flt3 mRNA is expressed in freshly purified, resting HPCs; after growth factor stimulus the message (2) is abruptly down-modulated in HPC erythroid differentiation, but (3) is sustainedly expressed through HPC GM differentiation and abolished in GM precursor maturation. This pattern contrasts with the gradual downmodulation of c-kit through both erythroid and GM HPC differentiation. The results indicate that FL exerts a stimulatory action on primitive HPCs, including a unique expanding effect on putative stem cells, whereas its distal proliferative/differentiative action is largely restricted to CFU-GM and monocytic precursors. The latter effect is potentiated by KL and M- CSF, thus suggesting that the structural similarities of FL, KL, M-CSF, and their tyrosine kinase receptors may mediate positive interactions of these growth factors son monocytic differentiation.