To investigate the effect of recombinant granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor (rGM-CSF) on murine megakaryocytopoiesis in vitro, the factor was added to both serum-free colony assays and liquid marrow cultures. GM-CSF had a significant megakaryocytic colony-stimulating activity. After 2 hours of preincubation with and without 10 ng/mL rGM- CSF, the percentage of megakaryocyte colony-forming cell (CFU-MK) in DNA synthesis was determined by tritiated-thymidine suicide using colony growth. The reduction of CFU-MK colony numbers in marrow culture was 47.5% +/- 9.9%, 20.9% +/- 5.2% (control), respectively, indicating that the factor affected cell cycle at CFU-MK levels. When acetylcholinesterase (AchE) production was measured fluorometrically after 4 days of liquid culture, rGM-CSF elicited an increase in AchE activity in a dose-dependent fashion. To determine if the hematopoietin acts directly on megakaryocytic differentiation, 2 ng/mL rGM-CSF was added to serum-free cultures of 295 single megakaryocytes isolated from CFU-MK colonies. An increase in size was observed in 65% of cells initially 10 to 20 microns in diameter, 71% of cells 20 to 30 microns, and 40% of cells greater than 30 microns. Conversely, in absence of GM- CSF, 17%, 31%, and 10% of cells in each group increased in diameter. These data suggest that rGM-CSF promotes murine megakaryocytopoiesis in vitro and that the response to the factor is direct. To determine if the factor influences megakaryocytic/thrombocytic lineage in vivo, 1 and 5 micrograms of rGM-CSF were administered intraperitoneally every 12 hours for 6 consecutive days. Although a two- to three-fold increase in peripheral granulocytes was observed, neither megakaryocytic progenitor cells or platelets changed. Histologic analysis of bone marrow megakaryocytes showed no increase in size and number. The in vivo studies demonstrated no effect of GM-CSF on thrombocytopoiesis. The discrepancies between the in vitro and in vivo effects of GM-CSF require additional investigations.