Hematopoiesis first arises in the extraembryonic yolk sac, and it is generally believed that yolk sac-derived stem cells migrate and seed the fetal liver at approximately week 6 of development in humans. Recently, the identification at day 8.5 to 9 of multipotential stem cells in intraembryonic sites different from the liver suggests that the establishment of hematopoiesis might be more complex than initially believed. In an attempt to understand initial steps of hematopoiesis during human ontogeny, we characterized clonogenic myeloid progenitor cells in human yolk sacs and corresponding embryos at 25 to 50 days of development. Most erythroid colonies derived from the yolk sacs differed from adult marrow-derived progenitors in that they also contained cells of the granulomacrophagic lineage, suggesting that they were pluripotent and exhibited a different response to cytokines. Furthermore, a subclass of nonerythroid progenitors generated very large granulomacrophagic colonies, some of which generated secondary erythroid colonies on replating. Analysis of the distribution of progenitors revealed that in contrast to erythroid progenitors, whose numbers were equally distributed between the yolk sac and the embryo, 80% of the nonerythroid progenitors were found in the embryo at stages II and III. Interestingly, a high proportion of nonerythroid progenitors (including high proliferative potential cells) was present in colony assays initiated with cells remaining after the liver has been removed. These findings were validated in colony assays established with CD34+ cells purified from extraembryonic yolk sacs and intraembryonic tissues. Increased knowledge about the biology of hematopoietic stem cells early in life may help to further understanding of the mechanisms associated with the restriction in proliferative and differentiative potential observed in the adult hematopoietic stem cell compartment.

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