Recombinant human (rh) interleukin-6 (IL-6), in a dose range of 1 to 10 U/mL, was able to induce a low number of neutrophilic-granulocytic colonies in a CFU-GM clonogenic assay, using T cells and adherent cells, depleted low density marrow cells. A synergistic increase in the number of granulocytic colonies was observed when rhGM-CSF at suboptimal doses and IL-6 at effective doses were both present in the assay; the increase was only additive when either rhIL-1 alpha or rhIL- 3 was used together with IL-6. To determine whether the increase in colony number reflects the interactions of these factors on the same hematopoietic progenitor target cells or, instead, represents activation of accessory cells, we analyzed the effect of IL-6 on the proliferation and differentiation of three growth factor-dependent leukemic cell lines that respond with continuous proliferation to the presence of GM-CSF and IL-3 in culture. One of the three cell lines (AML-193) showed limited proliferation in the presence of IL-6 followed by terminal differentiation after 14 days into basophilic-granulocytic- like cells. A synergistic proliferative response was observed on the same cells treated with both GM-CSF and IL-6. These data support the hypothesis that IL-6 may have a direct effect on myeloid hematopoietic progenitor cells, and that GM-CSF interacts synergistically with IL-6 by acting on the same target cells.