To study the role of different cytokine combinations on the proliferation and differentiation of highly purified primitive progenitor cells, a serum-free liquid culture system was used in combination with phenotypic and functional analysis of the cells produced in culture. CD34+ CD45RAlo CD71lo cells, purified from umbilical cord blood by flow cytometry and cell sorting, were selected for this study because of their high content of clonogenic cells (34%), particularly multipotent progenitors (CFU-MIX, 12% of all cells). Four cytokine combinations were tested: (1) mast cell growth factor (MGF; a c-kit ligand) and interleukin-6 (IL-6); (2) MGF, IL-6, IL-3, and erythropoietin (Epo); (3) MGF, IL-6, granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor (GM-CSF)/IL-3 fusion protein (FP), macrophage colony- stimulating factor (M-CSF), and granulocyte-CSF (G-CSF); and (4) MGF, IL-6, FP, M-CSF, G-CSF, and Epo. Maximum numbers of erythroid progenitors (BFU-E, up to 55-fold increase) and mature erythroid cells were observed in the presence of MGF, IL-6, IL-3, and Epo, whereas maximum levels of myeloid progenitors (CFU-C, up to 70-fold increase) and mature myeloid cells were found in cultures supplemented with MGF, IL-6, FP, M-CSF, and G-CSF. When MGF, IL-6, FP, M-CSF, G-CSF, and Epo were present, maximum levels of both erythroid and myeloid progenitors and their progeny were observed. These results indicate that specific cytokine combinations can act directly on primitive hematopoietic cells resulting in significant expansion of progenitor cell numbers and influencing their overall patterns of proliferation and differentiation. Furthermore, the observations presented in this study suggest that the cytokine combinations used were unable to bias lineage commitment of multipotent progenitors, but rather had a permissive effect on the development of lineage-restricted clonogenic cells.