The effects of stem cell factor (SCF) have been tested on a murine bone marrow subpopulation (RH123lo, Lin-, Ly6A/E+) that is highly enriched for long-term hematopoietic repopulating cells. SCF maintained cells from this population with long-term repopulating ability for up to 10 days in vitro. However, compared with freshly isolated cells, the level of engraftment in vivo by the cultured cells declined during the in vitro culture period, suggesting that SCF alone was unable to stimulate the self-renewal of long-term repopulating cells. By direct visualization of cultures, only small numbers of cells survived and rarely underwent cell division. However, SCF did directly stimulate proliferation of a population (Rh123med/hi,Lin-,Ly6A/E+) enriched for short-term repopulating cells. These data suggest that stem cell differentiation is associated with the development of mitogenic activity by SCF at least in some progenitor cell populations.