Human CD34+/Thy-1+/Lin- hematopoietic cells purified from bone marrow (BM) or mobilized peripheral blood (MPB) are highly enriched for pluripotent stem cells. Ex vivo expansion of this population is proposed as a means of providing accelerated short-term, as well as long-term, engraftment after myeloablative therapy. Here we demonstrate that primitive quiescent cells are retained in bulk expansion cultures of CD34+/Thy-1+/Lin- cells and that the cell production capacity of the expanded cell product can largely be attributed to cells exhibiting quiescent behavior during culture. CD34+/Thy-1+/Lin- cells from adult BM or MPB were labeled with the fluorescent membrane dye PKH26, followed by in vitro culture of 10(4) cells on a murine stromal layer in the presence of interleukin (IL)-3, IL-6, c-kit ligand (KL), and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF). With each subsequent cell division, PKH26 fluorescence is reduced by roughly half, which allows tracking of the number of cell divisions. Progenitor cells present after a 2-week expansion period were sorted into CD34+/Lin-/dyebright and CD34+/Lin- /dyedim fractions and then cultured in a 4-week single-cell proliferation assay to characterize the proliferative capacity of each group. Fifty-nine percent of progenitors remaining dyebright after bulk culture (four or fewer cell divisions) were observed to proliferate in single cell culture, and produced an average of 1,780 cells per plated cell. In contrast, only 26% of dyedim (more than four divisions) progenitors were observed to proliferate and displayed a lower average proliferative capacity of 225 cells per plated cell. Similar behaviors were observed after a second consecutive cycle of bulk culture, indicating that quiescent cells with high proliferative capacity existed in culture for at least 4 weeks. Single CD34+/Lin-/dyebright progenitors purified from bulk cultures were observed to produce as many as 1,000 CD34 positive progeny during single cell culture, and these progeny included multilineage colony forming cells. These data demonstrate that among CD34 positive cells recovered after in vitro bulk culture, a higher proliferative capacity correlated with quiescent behavior. The described culture method provides quantitation of the cell producing capacity of individual cells in hematopoietic cell mixtures and may prove useful for predicting engrafting potential in products intended for cellular therapy.