Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) has previously been reported to have both inhibitory and stimulatory effects on hematopoietic progenitor cells. Specifically, TNF alpha has been proposed to stimulate early hematopoiesis in humans. In the present study we show that TNF alpha, in a dose-dependent fashion, can potently inhibit the growth of primitive high proliferative potential colony-forming cells (HPP-CFCs) stimulated by multiple cytokine combinations. Using agonistic antibodies to the p55 and p75 TNF receptors or TNF alpha mutants specific for either of the two TNF receptors, we show that both receptors can mediate this inhibition. In contrast, the potent stimulation of interleukin-3 (IL-3) plus granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor (GM-CSF) induced HPP-CFC colony formation observed at low concentrations of TNF alpha (2 ng/mL) was only a p55-mediated event. Moreover, the stimulatory effects of TNF alpha on GM-CSF or IL-3- induced colony formation, as well as the inhibition of G-CSF-induced colony growth, were also exclusively signaled through the p55 TNF receptor. Taken together, our results suggest that the inhibitory effects of TNF alpha on primitive bone marrow progenitor cells are mediated through both p55 and p75 TNF receptors, whereas the p55 receptor exclusively mediates the bidirectional effects on more mature, single factor-responsive bone marrow progenitor cells as well as stimulation of IL-3 plus GM-CSF-induced HPP-CFC colony growth.