The regulation of cell differentiation and cell death in crucial to the generation of hematopoietic cells both in vitro and in vivo. The biologic role of stem cell factor (SCF) in hematopoietic cell development is not well known. We monitored the survival, proliferation and differentiation of mouse hematopoietic cells in culture in the presence of SCF. Examination of colony formation, MTT and thymidine killing of mouse bone marrow indicated that SCF is mainly a survival factor. Our results show that SCF maintains cells in a "undifferentiated" state. Committed granulocytic and monocytic progenitors (CFU-GM) survive for seven days in the presence of SCF alone, under conditions where no maturing granulocytic monocytic cells could be recovered. On transfer to GM-CSF containing cultures, these cells proliferate and differentiate terminally. Together, our data indicate that SCF induces survival in hematopoietic progenitors. Furthermore, SCF favors the survival of granulocytic progenitors over that of monocytic progenitors. In the absence of later acting factors such as GM-CSF, cells that progress beyond the CFU-GM stage lose c-kit expression and die by default. Hence, lack of cell expansion in the presence of SCF by itself is due to constant cell proliferation and survival, which is counterbalanced by cell death. In contrast, the presence of both SCF and GM-CSF allows for the continuous survival and expansion of hematopoietic progenitor cells in culture, as well as favoring their terminal differentiation along granulocytic and monocytic pathways. Furthermore, GM-CSF induces colonies of macrophages that produce G-CSF and IL-6, two molecules involved in granulopoiesis, and these in turn stimulate granulocyte colony formation. Finally, our data suggest that survival signals by SCF are crucial during the differentiative process of granulocytes, giving strength to deterministic model.