Marrow stromal cells are a heterogeneous population, comprising a variety of lineages including osteogenic cells. In the presence of ascorbic acid, sodium beta-glycerophosphate, and dexamethasone, rat bone marrow stromal cells form discrete nodules of mineralized, bonelike tissue. We used nodule formation by rat bone marrow stromal cells to assay for the self-renewal capacity of osteogenic progenitor cell populations. Cultures were subcultured every 5 days up to six times. Osteogenesis was assayed from second to sixth subcultures by counting the number and measuring the areas of mineralized nodules formed in cultures grown with 10(-8) mol/L dexamethasone. Nodule number and area decreased progressively between second and sixth subcultures. Alkaline phosphatase activity associated with individual cells and measured videodensitometrically decreased exponentially between the second and sixth subculture. The number of cells with alkaline phosphatase activity also decreased with progressive subculturing. The proportions of 3H-thymidine-labeled cells after continuous labeling from the beginning of the culture period showed 90% labeling for cells with alkaline phosphatase activity and fibroblastlike cells. Cultures labeled for only the first 3 days exhibited higher labeling of alkaline phosphatase-positive cells than fibroblastlike cells (P less than .05). Cultures that were flash-labeled at the end of the culture period demonstrated low labeling indices for cells with alkaline phosphatase activity and up to 10-fold higher labeling indices for fibroblastlike cells. Separate cultures treated with a cytocidal dose of high specific activity 3H-thymidine did not form nodules. These results indicate that osteogenic progenitor cells or another cell type required for nodules to develop must divide early in culture if nodule formation is to occur, and that osteoprogenitor cells express a limited capacity for self-renewal.