Hematopoietic stem cells were purified from murine bone marrow cells (BMC). Their characteristic density, size, internal complexity, Hoechst 33342 dye uptake, and wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) affinity were used to distinguish them from other cells in the bone marrow. BMC suspensions were centrifuged over Ficoll Lymphocyte Separation Media (Organon Teknika, Durham, NC; density 1.077 to 1.08). The lower-density cells were drawn off, stained with Hoechst and labeled with biotinylated WGA bound to streptavidin conjugated to phycoerythrin (WGA-B*A-PE) or with WGA conjugated to Texas Red. These cells were then analyzed and sorted by an Ortho Cytofluorograph 50-H cell sorter. The cells exhibiting medium to high forward light scatter, low to medium right angle light scatter, low Hoechst intensity, and high WGA affinity were selected. Sorted BMC (SBMC) were stained with Romanowsky-type stains for morphologic assay, and were assayed in lethally irradiated (LI) mice for their ability to produce colony-forming units in the spleen (CFU-S) and for their ability to produce survival. The spleen seeding factor for day 8 CFU-S upon retransplantation of the isolated cells was 0.1. The isolated cells were found to have consistent morphology, were enriched up to 135-fold as indicated by day 8 CFU-S assay, 195-fold as indicated by day 14 CFU-S assay, and 150 sorter-selected BMC were able to produce long-term survival in LI mice with retention of donor karyotype. When recipients of this first transplantation were themselves used as BMC donors, their number of day 8 and day 12 CFU-S were found to be reduced. However, 3 X 10(5) of their BMC provided 100% survival among secondary recipients. When the previously SBMC were competed after one transplantation against fresh nonsorted BMC in a mixed donor transplant, they showed the decline in hematopoietic potency normally seen in previously transplanted BMC. We conclude that the use of combinations of vital dyes for fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) selection of survival-promoting murine hematopoietic stem cells provides results comparable with those produced by antibody- selected FACS and has the advantage of a method directly transferable to human BMC.