Factors that regulate the growth and development of primitive bone marrow stromal cell precursors are not well defined. We have examined 25 purified recombinant growth factors for their ability to initiate and support clonogenic growth of fibroblast colony-forming cells (CFU- F) from adult human bone marrow. Assays were performed using bone marrow mononuclear cells (BMMNC) enriched in CFU-F by magnetic- activated cell sorting (MACS) using the monoclonal antibody (MoAb) STRO- 1. A serum-deprived assay was developed to avoid components of fetal calf serum (FCS) that may mask or otherwise modify the response of CFU- F to exogenously added factors. L-ascorbate and the glucocorticoid dexamethasone were found to be essential for CFU-F colony development under serum-deprived conditions. Importantly, clonogenic growth of CFU- F in this culture system was absolutely dependent on an exogenous source of growth factor. Platelet-derived growth factor-BB (PDGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF) demonstrated the greatest ability to support colony growth. Colony formation was dose-dependent, with half- maximal colony numbers at approximately 0.2 ng/mL for either factor and plateau numbers at concentrations in excess of 1.0 ng/mL. Simultaneous addition of PDGF and EGF had no effect on the number of colonies initiated but resulted in dose-dependent increases in mean colony diameter that were significant (P < or = .05) when compared with the effect of either factor alone or with the size of colonies elicited in control cultures by 20% FCS. Fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) of BMMNC using MoAbs to the alpha chain of the PDGF receptor and to the EGF receptor in combination with the Moab STRO-1 demonstrated constitutive expression of both receptors by greater than 90% on CFU-F. Receptors for insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and nerve growth factor (NGF) were also detected on STRO-1+ CFU-F, but in vitro both IGF- 1 and NGF did not support colony growth. This report demonstrates the development of a simple, reproducible, and stringent culture system for the growth and assay of stromal precursors under serum-deprived conditions and represents an important prerequisite for future studies of the role of growth factors in the regulation of stromal cell proliferation, differentiation, and development.