Very primitive human hematopoietic progenitor cells are identified indirectly by their ability to give rise to clonogenic progenitors in the presence of either human or murine stromal cells. These long-term culture-initiating cell (LTC-IC) assays are usually performed in the presence of hydrocortisone based on the initial observation that hydrocortisone was required for prolonged hematopoiesis in standard long-term bone marrow cultures. In this report, we investigated the role of hydrocortisone in LTC-IC assays initiated with CD34++/CD38- cells seeded onto either human bone marrow LTC-derived adherent cells or a murine marrow-derived stromal cell line, MS-5. It was found that weekly addition of hydrocortisone to the cultures reduced the frequency of LTC-IC (from 1/5 to 1/20) calculated from limiting dilution experiments and also reduced fivefold to 10-fold the number of their progeny clonogenic cells detected after 4 to 5 weeks. In contrast, the frequency and differentiative potential of CD34++/CD38- grown in the presence of human marrow feeders was unaltered by the addition of glucocorticoids. Data are consistent with the hypothesis that hydrocortisone inhibited LTC-IC differentiation by downregulating the expression of a synergistic factor produced by MS-5 cells. (1) In the absence of hydrocortisone, the number of clonogenic progenitors generated by LTC-IC was much higher in cultures seeded on MS-5 than in cultures seeded on human marrow adherent cells, which was also true when cytokines were added to the cocultures. However, based on the phenotype of the colonies, progenitors produced in MS-5 cocultures were more mature than those generated on human marrow adherent cells. (2) Hydrocortisone counteracted the stimulatory effect of recombinant human cytokines (interleukin-3, interleukin-6, and steel factor) in assays performed on MS-5 but not on human marrow feeders. (3) Hydrocortisone led to a 50% decrease in the numbers of colony-forming units- granulocyte-macrophage found in methycellulose colony assays of CD34++/CD38- cells performed in the presence of MS-5 cells. Taken together, our results indicate that hydrocortisone acts differently on a murine stromal cell line and on marrow-derived human stromal cells and may suppress the expression by MS-5 cells of an activity selectively promoting amplification of clonogenic cells derived from primitive LTC-IC.