The phenotypes of mice that harbor a defect in the genes encoding either stem cell factor (SCF) or its receptor, c-kit, indicate that this ligand/receptor pair is necessary for maintenance of normal hematopoiesis in the adult. Our objective was to determine whether SCF, like erythropoietin, is necessary for acute erythroid expansion during recovery from hemolytic anemia. Monoclonal antibody ACK2, which recognizes the murine c-kit receptor, was used to selectively block the hematopoietic growth-promoting effects of SCF. Mice were treated with phenylhydrazine on day 0 and day 1 to induce hemolytic anemia and also received no antibody, control IgG, or ACK2 on day 0. The mice were killed on day 3 and the hematocrit (Hct), reticulocyte count, and numbers of erythroid and myeloid hematopoietic progenitor cells (colony- forming unit-erythroid [CFU-E], burst-forming unit [BFU]-E, and CFU- granulocyte-macrophage [GM]) were quantitated in the femoral marrow and spleen using hematopoietic colony-forming assays. Induction of hemolytic anemia with phenylhydrazine resulted in a drop in the Hct from approximately 50% to 30%, and an approximate 8- to 10-fold increase in the reticulocyte count. The numbers of CFU-E increased modestly in the femur, and approximately 25- to 50-fold in the spleen, in comparison with normal mice. BFU-E and CFU-GM values did not increase in the femur but expanded 6- to 10-fold in the spleen, in comparison with normal mice. This confirms that much of the erythroid expansion in response to hemolytic anemia occurs in the murine spleen. Neutralizing quantities of the ACK2 antibody reduced femoral CFU-E, BFU- E, and CFU-GM content to less than half that found in phenylhydrazine- treated control mice and nearly totally ablated splenic hematopoiesis. These results suggest that c-kit receptor function may be required for optimal response to acute erythropoietic demand and that erythropoiesis in the splenic microenvironment is more dependent on SCF/c-kit receptor interaction than is erythropoiesis in the marrow microenvironment. Because expansion of late erythropoiesis in the spleen was preferentially blocked, we tested the hypothesis that homing of more primitive hematopoietic cells to the spleen was dependent on c-kit receptor function. Lethally irradiated mice were injected with marrow cells obtained from mice that had received phenylhydrazine plus control IgG or with marrow cells obtained from mice that had received phenylhydrazine plus ACK2. In parallel experiments, normal murine marrow cells were treated in vitro with control IgG or with ACK2 and were injected into lethally irradiated mice. The fraction of BFU-E and CFU-GM retrieved from the marrow and spleen of the recipient mice 4 hours later was reduced by approximately 75% when progenitor cells had been exposed to ACK2, in comparison with control IgG. These data suggest that interaction of SCF with the c-kit receptor affects the homing behavior of hematopoietic progenitor cells in the adult animal.