Northern blot analysis has identified granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) mRNA in monocytes and both GM-CSF and interleukin-3 (IL-3) mRNA in lymphocytes. However, these results have not addressed whether all cells or a subset of the population is capable of hematopoietic growth factor (HGF) production. To resolve this question, we applied in situ hybridization of radiolabeled antisense RNA probes to centrifuged preparations of total blood mononuclear cells (BMCs) and fractionated lymphocyte subpopulations. Without stimulation, no circulating cells expressed detectable levels of GM-CSF or IL-3 mRNA. On stimulation of BMCs with phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) and phytohemagglutinin or PMA and the calcium ionophore ionomycin, approximately 5% expressed GM-CSF mRNA and approximately 1% IL-3 mRNA. Control sense probes produced no labeled cells. To determine the subsets of lymphocytes capable of GM-CSF and IL-3 expression, BMCs were fractionated by FACS into CD8+ and CD4+ lymphocyte subsets and CD16+ (NK) cells. The unfractionated cells and cell fractions were then stimulated with PMA and ionomycin. Results demonstrated that 3% to 5% of the CD16+, CD8+, and CD4+ lymphocytes produced GM-CSF mRNA. However, the number of IL-3 mRNA-positive cells in the FACS-sorted subsets was greatly reduced (0.02% to 0.05%) as compared with the unseparated cells (1%). Treatment of BMCs with high-dose interleukin-2 (IL-2) for 1 week followed by PMA plus ionomycin resulted in a lymphocyte population in which 50% and 3% of cells expressed GM-CSF and IL-3 mRNA, respectively. Thus, GM-CSF and IL-3 mRNA expression in T cells and NK cells is restricted to a small fraction of cells that can be greatly expanded by IL-2 stimulation. These results suggest a possible physiologic mechanism for increasing HGF production by circulating lymphocytes.