Previous studies have shown that tumor necrosis factors (TNFs) inhibit the proliferative effects of crude or purified colony-stimulating factors (CSFs) on low density human bone marrow cell fractions. In the present study we investigated the effects of TNF alpha on the growth of highly purified CD34+ human hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPC) in response to recombinant CSFs. In short-term liquid cultures (5 to 8 days), TNF alpha strongly potentiates interleukin-3 (IL-3) and granulocyte-macrophage-CSF (GM-CSF)-induced growth of CD34+ HPC, while it has no proliferative effect per se. Within 8 days, the number of viable cells obtained in TNF alpha-supplemented cultures is threefold higher than in cultures carried out with IL-3 or GM-CSF alone. Secondary liquid cultures showed that the potentiating effect of TNF alpha on IL-3-induced proliferation of CD34+ HPC does not result from an IL-3-dependent generation of TNF alpha responsive cells. Limiting dilution analysis indicates that TNF alpha increases both the frequency of IL-3 responding cells and the average size of the IL-3-dependent clones. The potentiating effect of TNF alpha on IL-3- and GM-CSF- dependent growth of CD34+ HPC is also observed in day 7 colony assays. Under these short-term culture conditions, TNF alpha does not appear to accelerate cell maturation as a precursor morphology is retained. Finally, TNF alpha inhibits the relatively weak growth-promoting effect of granulocyte-CSF (G-CSF), which acts on a more committed subpopulation of CD34+ HPC different from that recruited by IL-3 and GM- CSF. TNF beta displays the same modulatory effects as TNF alpha. Thus, TNFs appear to enhance the early stages of myelopoiesis.