Investigations linking human megakaryocyte development and cell biology have been hindered by an inability to obtain large, relatively pure megakaryocyte cell preparations from in vitro stem cell cultures. We report here that such preparations can be generated from liquid cultures of normal human peripheral blood mononuclear cells stimulated by a serum source of megakaryocyte colony stimulating activity (Meg- CSA, the 0% to 60% ammonium sulfate protein fraction of aplastic canine serum). Adherent-depleted peripheral blood mononuclear cells are suspended at 5 x 10(5) to 10(6) cells/mL in supplemented liquid culture medium, platelet-poor human plasma 20% (vol/vol) and 1 to 2 mg/mL serum Meg-CSA protein. After 12 to 14 days of incubation, megakaryocytes constitute 3.0 +/- 2.9% (mean +/- SD, n = 8) of the unseparated cultured cell population. Megakaryocytes can be enriched by counterflow centrifugal elutriation to a purity of 58 +/- 14% (+/- SD) with a recovery of 13 +/- 7% and a viability of 67 +/- 19%. This algorithm results in the average isolation of approximately 3 x 10(5) enriched megakaryocytes from a 100-mL starting volume of peripheral blood. Cultured megakaryocytes exhibit normal light and ultrastructural morphology by Wright-Giemsa staining and electron microscopic analysis. After a 12-day culture interval, enriched megakaryocyte preparations exhibit morphologic stage distributions that are similar to normal human marrow. Stage distributions move rightward with culture duration indicating partial synchrony of megakaryocyte maturation. On cytospin preparations, megakaryocyte diameter averages 30.2 +/- 1.5 microns and increases with maturation stage. Flow cytometric analyses demonstrate the expression of platelet glycoproteins (GP) Ib and IIb/IIIa by the cultured megakaryocytes. The modal ploidy of the enriched cells at day 12 of culture is 16N and most remaining megakaryocytes are 8N or 32N. Liquid culture of serum Meg-CSA-stimulated human peripheral blood mononuclear cells represents a valuable investigative tool that should permit studies of human megakaryocyte biology that have not been possible in the past.