Polycythemia vera (PV) is a clonal disease of the hematopoietic stem cell characterized by a hyperplasia of marrow erythropoiesis, granulocytopoiesis, and megakaryocytopoiesis. We previously reported that highly purified PV blood burst-forming units-erythroid (BFU-E) are hypersensitive to recombinant human interleukin-3 (rIL-3). Because these cells may be only a subset, and not representative of marrow progenitors, we have now studied partially purified marrow hematopoietic progenitor cells. Dose-response experiments with PV marrow BFU-E showed a 38-fold increase in sensitivity to rIL-3 and a 4.3-fold increase in sensitivity to recombinant human erythropoietin (rEpo) compared with normal marrow BFU-E. In addition, PV marrow colony- forming units-granulocyte-macrophage (CFU-GM) and CFU-megakaryocyte (CFU-MK) also showed a marked hypersensitivity to rIL-3 and to human recombinant granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (rGM-CSF). Dose-response curves with rGM-CSF and blood BFU-E showed a 48-fold increase in sensitivity. No effect of rIL-4, rIL-6, human recombinant granulocyte-CSF (rG-CSF), or macrophage-CSF (rM-CSF) was evident, nor was there any effect of PV cell-conditioned medium on normal BFU-E, when compared with normal cell-conditioned medium. Autoradiography with 125I-rEpo showed an increase in Epo receptors after maturation of PV BFU-E to CFU-E similar to that shown with normal BFU-E, but no increase of specific binding of 125I-rIL-3 by PV CD34+ cells was seen compared with normal CD34+ cells. These studies show that PV marrow hematopoietic progenitor cells are hypersensitive to rIL-3 and rGM-CSF, similar to PV blood BFU-E. While the mechanism does not appear to be due to enhanced binding of rIL-3, the hypersensitivity of PV progenitor cells to IL-3 and GM-CSF may be a key factor in the pathogenesis of PV.