Thrombopoietin (Tpo), the ligand for c-mpl, has been shown to be the principal regulator of megakaryocytopoiesis and platelet production. The ability of Tpo to potently stimulate the growth of committed megakaryocyte (Mk) progenitor cells has been studied in detail. Murine fetal liver cells, highly enriched in primitive progenitors, have been shown to express c-mpl, but little is known about the ability of Tpo to stimulate the growth and differentiation of primitive multipotent bone marrow (BM) progenitor cells. Here, we show that Tpo alone and in combination with early acting cytokines can stimulate the growth and multilineage differentiation of Lin-Sca-1+ BM progenitor cells. In particular, Tpo potently synergized with the ligands for c-kit (stem cell factor [SCF]) and flt3 (FL) to stimulate an increase in the number and size of clones formed from Lin-Sca-1+ progenitors. When cells were plated at 1 cell per well, the synergistic effect of Tpo was observed both in fetal calf serum-supplemented and serum-depleted medium and was decreased if the addition of Tpo to cultures was delayed for as little as 24 hours, suggesting that Tpo is acting directly on the primitive progenitors. Tpo added to SCF + erythropoietin (Epo)-supplemented methylcellulose cultures potently enhanced the formation of multilineage colonies containing granulocytes, macrophages, erythrocytes, and Mks. SCF potently enhanced Tpo-stimulated production of high-ploidy Mks from Lin- Sca-1+ progenitors, whereas the increased growth response obtained when combining Tpo with FL did not translate into increased Mk production. The ability of Tpo and SCF to synergistically enhance the growth of Lin- Sca-1+ progenitors was predominantly observed in the more primitive rhodamine 123(lo) fraction. Tpo also enhanced growth of Lin- Sca-1+ progenitors when combined with interleukin-3 (IL-3) and IL-11 but not with IL-12, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, or Epo. Epo, which has high homology to Tpo, was unable to stimulate the growth of Lin-Sca-1+ progenitors alone or in combination with SCF or FL, suggesting that c-mpl is expressed on more primitive stages of progenitors than the Epo receptor. Thus, the present studies show the potent ability of Tpo to enhance the growth of primitive multipotent murine BM progenitors in combination with multiple early acting cytokines and documents its unique ability to synergize with SCF to enhance Mk production from such progenitors.