The generation of murine mast cells is supported by several cytokines, and mast cell lines are frequently established in long-term cultures of normal murine marrow cells. In contrast, growth of human mast cells was initially dependent on coculture with murine fibroblasts. The growth factor produced by murine fibroblasts and required to observe differentiation of human mast cells is attributable in part to stem cell factor (SCF). However, other factors are likely involved. We have previously shown that the combination of SCF and interleukin-3 (IL-3) efficiently sustains proliferation and differentiation of colony- forming cells (CFCs) from pre-CFC enriched from human umbilical cord blood by CD34+ selection. With periodic medium changes and the addition of fresh growth factors, five consecutive cultures of different cord blood samples gave rise to differentiated cells and CFCs for more than 2 months. Although differentiated cells continued to be generated for more than 5 months, CFCs were no longer detectable by day 50 of culture. The cells have the morphology of immature mast cells, are Toluidine blue positive, are karyotypically normal, are CD33+, CD34-, CD45+, c-kit-, and c-fms-, and die in the absence of either SCF or IL- 3. These cells do not form colonies in semisolid culture and are propagated in liquid culture stimulated with SCF and IL-3 at a seeding concentration of no less than 10(4) cells/mL. At refeedings, the cultures contain a high number (= 50%) of dead cells and have a doubling time ranging from 5 to 12 days. This suggests that subsets of the cell population die because of a requirement for a growth factor other than SCF or IL-3. These results indicate that the combination of cord blood progenitor and stem cells, plus a cocktail of growth factors including SCF and IL-3, is capable with high efficiency of giving rise in serum-deprived culture to human mast cells that behave like factor- dependent cell lines. These cells may represent a useful tool for studies of human mast cell differentiation and leukemia.