The differentiation of bipotential precursors of oligodendrocytes (OL) and type-2 astrocytes (AS) was followed in primary cultures from 8-day postnatal rat cerebellum by labeling the cells with the antibodies LB1 (which binds to the surface disialoganglioside GD3 present in glial precursors, type-2 AS, and immature OL), O4 (a marker of immature and mature OL binding to surface sulfatide), anti-galactocerebroside (GalCer, a marker of OL), and anti-glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP, a marker of AS). Two hours after plating, hardly any LB1+, GFAP+ cells were detectable, 40% of the O4+ cells were GalCer+, and none of the O4+ cells were GFAP+. Upon culturing cells plated at a density of 1 x 10(5) cells per cm2 in the presence of fetal calf serum, most of the LB1+ precursors differentiated into type-2 AS, even if most of them had already expressed the O4 antigen. Thus, in culture, most type-2 AS seem to derive from progenitor cells that were differentiating in vivo into OL. In higher density cultures (2.5 x 10(5) cells per cm2), however, many precursors differentiated into GalCer+ OL, rather than into AS. As a possible source of the signals responsible for the behavior of the glial precursors in high-density cultures, we focused our attention on type-1 AS, the most abundant cell type in the cultures. We found that, in low-density cultures maintained for 5-7 days in a medium conditioned by type-1 AS, the proliferation of the precursors was enhanced and their differentiation into OL or AS was prevented. In contrast, when cerebellar cells were coplated with type-1 AS dissociated from purified cultures, not only did the precursors proliferate more than in control cultures, but also a larger proportion of them differentiated into GalCer+ OL. In conclusion, type-1 AS appear to facilitate the differentiation of bipotential glial precursors into OL through direct cell-cell interactions. The influence of type-1 AS on the differentiation of the LB1+ and O4+ precursors is supported also by experiments with glial cortical cultures.