The characteristic lesion in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the failure of myeloid cells to differentiate normally, leading to the accumulation of immature blast cells (BC) in the bone marrow. We determined whether BC and leukemia colony-forming cells (L-CFC) from AML patients could differentiate in vitro after short-term culture with interferon-gamma (IFN gamma), 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D3 (D3), retinoic acid (RA), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha), and granulocyte- monocyte colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF). Expression of myeloid differentiation antigens CD15, CD14, CD33, and p124 was determined on the BC by immunofluorescence and on the L-CFC by monoclonal antibody (MoAb) and complement (C')-mediated cytotoxicity followed by cloning in methylcellulose. We found that 26 of 39 (67%) cases demonstrated changes in the expression of myeloid differentiation antigens on the BC, and 6 of 7 (86%) cases showed an altered L-CFC myeloid antigen phenotype after short-term culture with differentiating agents. Alterations in myeloid antigen expression in the L-CFC population correlated with a reduction in L-CFC cloning potential. In the BC, alterations of myeloid differentiation antigens occurred in a manner consistent with those observed during normal myelopoiesis. For example, CD14 antigen expression (a late-stage monocyte antigen) increased on BC from 12 of 39 (31%) cases, and p124 (an antigen expressed both by myeloid progenitor cells and by a subset of monocytes) increased on 15 of 39 (38%) cases. Changes in the expression of CD33 antigens (expressed normally by myeloid progenitor cells and by mature monocytes) on the BC were variable, with 7 of 29 cases (24%) showing a decrease and 7 of 29 cases (24%) showing an increase. When comparisons were made between pairs of differentiation agents that caused the altered expression of an antigen on either the BC or L-CFC of a patient, the majority of changes were in the same direction (either both “increased” or both “decreased”). This suggests that the direction of antigen change is characteristic of the leukemia cell subpopulation for each patient and not of the stimulatory agent. This study demonstrates that cells from more than two thirds of AML cases examined responded to various differentiation agents in vitro as measured by changes in the expression of myeloid cell-associated surface antigens and by alterations in cloning potential of the L-CFC, a finding of potential clinical significance.