The effects of pure recombinant human tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF) on the CSF-1-stimulated proliferation of well-defined populations of murine macrophages are examined. Primary bone marrow-derived macrophages (BMM) from endotoxin-resistant C3H/HeJ mice were characterized for homogeneity in comparison with a cloned, growth factor-dependent macrophage cell line (S1) also derived from C3H/HeJ bone marrow cells. The mitogenic effects of each factor, alone and in combination, on the proliferation of both macrophage populations over a two-day culture period were studied. In contrast to CSF-1, TNF alone only slightly stimulated macrophage proliferation. However, the combination of CSF-1 and TNF stimulated proliferation of both primary BMM and S1 cells 1.5- to 2-fold greater than the sum of their predicted individual contributions. Such synergy was observed even at very high (plateau) levels of factors. TNF was found to transiently down-regulate CSF-1 receptor levels on both populations. Down-regulation was maximal at one hour; however, receptor numbers returned to initial, or greater, levels after 24 hours of incubation. Thus, TNF, an inducible monokine, greatly enhances the maximal mitogenic effects of CSF-1, an inducer of TNF production. These observations suggest an autocrine rule for TNF that involves synergy with (and perhaps obligatory cooperation with) CSF-1 in the regulation of macrophage proliferation.