Previously we have demonstrated that, in contrast to various panspecific or multilineage hematopoietic growth factors, lymphocyte- derived erythroid burst-promoting activity (BPA) is lineage specific, stimulating BFU-E proliferation in serum-free culture by up to 600% of control values while failing to enhance nonerythroid colony formation. To further determine the cellular source(s) of this important erythropoietic growth regulator, we have separated normal nonadherent peripheral blood and splenic lymphocytes by nylon wool fractionation, SRBC rosetting, and panning with monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs). These unstimulated T- and B-lymphocyte-enriched populations were used as cell sources to produce conditioned media (CM) and to prepare plasma membranes (PM). When CM fractions or purified PM were assayed in serum- free human bone marrow culture, BPA was localized entirely to the B- lymphocyte-derived fractions. While CM or PM from unstimulated T lymphocytes failed to stimulate BFU-E proliferation, activation of T cells by either phytohemagglutinin-M (1%) or concanavalin A (Con A; 5 micrograms/mL) induced the expression of a factor on the PM and in the resultant CM that stimulated the formation of erythroid bursts. In addition to enhancing BFU-E proliferation, this T-cell factor stimulated the proliferation of CFU-GM and CFU-GEMM in serum-free culture. When compared biochemically (in terms of temperature stability, localization by ammonium sulfate fractionation, and sensitivity to dithiothreitol) or immunochemically (using antibodies specific for lymphocyte-derived BPA, GM-CSF, or interleukin-3 [IL-3]), as well as by lineage specificity, B- and activated T-lymphocyte- derived growth factors appeared to be distinct. The burst stimulatory activities expressed by recombinant human GM-CSF and IL-3 were immunologically distinct from that associated with octylglucoside extracts of plasma membranes from resting B lymphocytes. Our results suggest that the BFU-E-directed growth-promoting activity released from activated T lymphocytes is apparently due to GM-CSF, while both resting and mitogen-stimulated normal B lymphocytes express erythroid-specific BPA and neither GM-CSF nor IL-3.