In human long-term marrow cultures connective tissue-forming stromal cells are an essential cellular component of the adherent layer where granulomonocytic progenitors are generated from week 2 onward. We have previously found that most stromal cells in confluent cultures were stained by monoclonal antibodies directed against smooth muscle- specific actin isoforms. The present study was carried out to evaluate the time course of alpha-SM-positive stromal cells and to search for other cytoskeletal proteins specific for smooth muscle cells. It was found that the expression of alpha-SM in stromal cells was time dependent. Most of the adherent spindle-shaped, vimentin-positive stromal cells observed during the first 2 weeks of culture were alpha- SM negative. On the contrary, from week 3 to week 7, most interdigitated stromal cells contained stress fibers whose backbone was made of alpha-SM-positive microfilaments. In addition, in confluent cultures, other proteins specific for smooth muscle were detected: metavinculin, h-caldesmon, smooth muscle myosin heavy chains, and calponin. This study confirms the similarity between stromal cells and smooth muscle cells. Moreover, our results reveal that cells in vivo with the phenotype closest to that of stromal cells are immature fetal smooth muscle cells and subendothelial intimal smooth muscle cells; a cell subset with limited development following birth but extensively recruited in atherosclerotic lesions. Stromal cells very probably derive from mesenchymal cells that differentiate along this distinctive vascular smooth muscle cell pathway. In humans, this differentiation seems crucial for the maintenance of granulomonopoiesis. These in vitro studies were completed by examination of trephine bone marrow biopsies from adults without hematologic abnormalities. These studies revealed the presence of alpha-SM-positive cells at diverse locations: vascular smooth muscle cells in the media of arteries and arterioles, pericytes lining capillaries, myoid cells lining sinuses at the abluminal side of endothelial cells or found within the hematopoietic logettes, and endosteal cells lining bone trabeculae. More or less mature cells of the granulocytic series were in intimate contact with the thin cytoplasmic extensions of myoid cells. Myoid cells may be the in vivo counterpart of stromal cells with the above-described vascular smooth muscle phenotype.