Colonies of cells with distinctive dendritic appearance were observed in methylcellulose cultures of human bone marrow and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). Such cells appeared alone in colonies of less than 50 cells, together with macrophages in mixed colonies and also within clusters of T lymphocytes at high culture cell numbers. The morphologic resemblance to lymphoid dendritic cells was confirmed by electron microscopy and the cells were distinguished from macrophages by immunoenzymatic and immunogold labeling with monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs). Like macrophages they were HLA-DR+ and CD4+. However, they lacked nonspecific esterase and the macrophage cytoplasmic marker Y1/82A. Most strikingly, cells were strongly HLA-DQ+ and expressed CD1a (T6), which is characteristic of skin Langerhans cells. Their functional similarity to lymphoid dendritic cells was demonstrated by their ability to stimulate allogeneic mixed leukocyte reactions. Dendritic cell colony numbers were estimated in both bone marrow and peripheral blood of controls and in leukemia and lymphoma patients before and after chemotherapy. Colony numbers were low in control blood and in patients before treatment (less than 1.0 to 3.7/10(5) cells). However, during hematopoietic recovery the mean value increased to 37.5/10(5) cells and this increase correlated closely with the observed increase in circulating colony forming unit-granulocyte macrophage (CFU- GM) in individual patients. Autoradiographic studies demonstrated mitotic activity within CD1a+ colonies and a linear relationship between cultured cells and both pure and mixed colonies was consistent with their derivation from a single precursor. These data indicate that a novel hematopoietic progenitor of dendritic/Langerhans cells (DL-CFU) may now be identified in a clonal assay system and suggest a probable common progenitor for these cells and macrophages.