High proliferative-potential colony-forming cells (HPP-CFC) have been identified in the bone marrow of mice and adult humans, and have been characterized as a compartment of primitive progenitors possibly including stem cells. In this report we describe the human fetal liver (FL) as a source of HPP-CFC. These FL HPP-CFC develop in clonal cultures in the presence of granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and interleukin-3 (IL-3) within 3 to 4 weeks. The median frequency of HPP-CFC in FL tissues between 16 and 21 weeks of gestational age was 1 in 3,000 total FL cells. After 4 weeks of growth, FL HPP-CFC grew to a median colony size of 8.3 x 10(4) cells/colony. Using cell-sorting techniques FL HPP-CFC were shown to be predominantly contained in the CD34+ CD33+ CD38- fraction of FL cells. FL HPP-CFC were heterogeneous for HLA-DR expression, and no differences in proliferative capacities were observed between HLA-DR+ and HLA-DR- HPP- CFC. The CD34+ CD33-HLA-DR- CD38- population, previously suggested to contain stem cells, was observed to be very rare in the FL, representing approximately 1 in 1.7 x 10(5) light-density FL cells and containing almost no CFC. Therefore, it is possible that stem cells are contained in the CD33+ fraction of FL cells. Phenotypic characterization of CD34+ CD33+ CD38- lin -LDFL cells showed that these cells are also CD13+, predominantly Thy-1+, CD45RA-, CD45RO-, CD71-, and heterogenoeous for c-kit expression. These data suggest that FL HPP- CFC represent a heterogeneous compartment of primitive myeloid progenitors that may include stem cells.