Under serum-deprived and chemically defined culture conditions, the growth of Rauscher erythroleukemia cells is mediated by an autocrine mechanism. The growth-promoting activity is produced by fresh or irradiated cells and resembles the activity of interleukin-3 (IL-3) in its ability to sustain colony formation from three of four IL-3- dependent cell lines and to induce formation of granulocyte/macrophage (GM) colonies and, in the presence of erythropoietin (Ep), of erythroid bursts and mixed erythroid colonies. IL-3, IL-1, IL-4, IL-6, GM colony- stimulating factor (GM-CSF), G-CSF, M-CSF, Ep, and media conditioned by concanavalin A-stimulated mouse spleen cells or phytohemagglutinin- stimulated LBRM 33 cells were unable to induce proliferation of the Rauscher erythroleukemia cells. Northern analysis of total and polyA- selected RNA extracted from untreated Rauscher cells or from cells 24 hours after irradiation showed the presence of message for M-CSF but not for IL-3, IL-1, GM-CSF, or G-CSF. The production of IL-6 was excluded by a sensitive bioassay. These results indicate that the autocrine growth of the Rauscher cell line is mediated by a growth factor different from IL-3, but with similar biological activity. Activation of the expression of such a growth factor during viral infection may contribute to the generation of leukemic cells that have the property to grow in vitro and generate Rauscher erythroleukemia cell lines.