Hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) is a mesenchymal derived growth factor known to induce proliferation and "scattering" of epithelial and endothelial cells. Its receptor is the tyrosine kinase encoded by the c- MET protooncogene. Here we show that highly purified recombinant HGF stimulates hemopoietic progenitors to form colonies in vitro. In the presence of erythropoietin, picomolar concentrations of HGF induced the formation of erythroid burst-forming unit colonies from CD34-positive cells purified from human bone marrow, peripheral blood, or umbilical cord blood. The growth stimulatory activity was restricted to the erythroid lineage. HGF also stimulated the formation of multipotent CFU- GEMM colonies. This effect is synergized by stem cell factor, the ligand of the tyrosine kinase receptor encoded by the c-KIT protooncogene, which is active on early hemopoietic progenitors. By flow cytometry analysis, the receptor for HGF was found to be expressed on the cell surface in a fraction of CD34+ progenitors. Moreover, in situ hybridization experiments showed that HGF receptor mRNA is highly expressed in embryonic erythroid cells (megaloblasts). HGF mRNA was also found to be produced in the embryonal liver. These data show that HGF plays a direct role in the control of proliferation and differentiation of erythroid progenitors, and they suggest that it may be one of the long-sought mediators of paracrine interactions between stromal and hemopoietic cells within the hemopoietic microenvironment.