Effects of interleukin-6 (IL-6) on cycling status and clonogenic maturation of human fetal (cord blood) and adult hematopoietic progenitors were compared. Adult marrow cells were incubated for various lengths of time with various concentrations of IL-6, in a serum- free system, after which tritiated thymidine suicide studies were performed. After incubation of 2 to 5 x 10(6) cells/mL for 4 hours in 5.0 ng IL-6/mL, increased thymidine suicide rates were observed for multipotent progenitors (CFU-Mix), granulocyte-macrophage progenitors (CFU-GM), and erythroid burst-forming units (BFU-E). Similar incubations of fetal cells in IL-6 resulted in similar increases in tritiated thymidine suicide rates. In other studies, IL-6 used alone did not support colony formation from adult progenitors. However, it did support colony formation from fetal CFU-Mix (P less than .05), CFU- GM (P less than .001), and BFU-E (P less than .05). In cultures of adult progenitors, IL-6 acted synergistically with IL-3 to support CFU- Mix colony formation (P less than .001), but synergistic actions on CFU- GM and BFU-E were not seen. In contrast, IL-6 acted synergistically with IL-3 and with GM-CSF to support colony formation by fetal CFU-Mix, CFU-GM, and BFU-E. Thus, IL-6 appears to have a wider spectrum of action on fetal progenitors from cord blood than on adult progenitors; including not only the induction of cycling, but also the support of clonogenic maturation of CFU-Mix, CFU-GM, and BFU-E.