Attempts to maintain or expand primitive hematopoietic stem cells in vitro without the concomitant loss of their differentiative and proliferative potential in vivo have largely been unsuccessful. To investigate this problem, we compared the ability of three cloned bone marrow (BM) stromal cell lines to support the growth of primitive Thy-1lo Sca-1+H-2Khi cells isolated by fluorescence-activated cell sorting from the BM of Ly-5.2 mice treated 1 day previously with 5-fluo- rouracil. Sorted cells were highly enriched in cobblestone area-forming cells (CAFC), but their frequency was dependent on the stromal cell lines used in this assay (1 per 45 cells on SyS-1; 1 per 97 cells on PA6). In the presence of recombinant leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), CAFC cloning efficiency was increased to 1 per 8 cells on SyS-1 and 1 per 11 cells on PA6, thus showing the high clonogenicity of this primitive stem cell population. More primitive stem cells with competitive repopulating potential were measured by injecting the sorted cells into lethally irradiated Ly-5.1 mice together with 10(5) radioprotective Ly-5.1 BM cells whose long-term repopulating ability has been "compromised" by two previous cycles of marrow transplantation and regeneration. Donor-derived lymphocytes and granulocytes were detected in 66% of animals injected with 50 sorted cells. To quantitate the maintenance of competitive repopulating units (CRU) by stromal cells, sorted cells were transplanted at limiting dilution before and after being cultured for 2 weeks on adherent layers of SyS-1, PA6, or S17 cells. CRU represented 1 per 55 freshly sorted cells. CRU could be recovered from cocultures supported by all three stromal cell lines, but their numbers were approximately-sevenfold less than on day 0. In contrast, the addition of LIF to stromal cultures improved CRU survival by 2.5-fold on S17 and PA6 cells (approximately two-fold to threefold decline), and enabled their maintenance on SyS-1. LIF appeared to act indirectly, because alone it did not support the proliferation of Thy-1lo Sca-1+H-2Khi cells in stroma-free cultures. Polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis revealed that Interleukin-1beta (IL-1 beta) IL-2, IL-6, granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor, transforming growth factors, LIF, and Steel Factor (SLF) mRNAs were upregulated in SyS-1 within 1 to 6 hours of LIF-stimulation. To determine if increased expression of SLF by LIF-stimulated SyS-1 cells could account for their capacity to support stem cells, sorted calls were cocultured on simian CV-E cells that were transfected with an expression vector encoding membrane-bound SLF, or supplemented with soluble SLF. In both cases, SLF synergized with IL-6 produced endogenously by CV-E cells enabling CAFC growth equivalent to that on LIF-stimulated SyS-1. CAFC development on LIF-stimulated SyS-1 could also be completely abrogated by an anti-SLF antibody. These data provide evidence for a role of LIF in the support of long-term repopulating stem cells by indirectly promoting cytokine expression by BM stroma. Furthermore, we have used quantitative assays to show a maintenance of CRU numbers, with retention of in vivo function following ex vivo culture.