Pluripotent hematopoietic stem cells (PHSC) are very rare cells whose functional capabilities can only be analyzed indirectly. For a better understanding and possible manipulation of mechanisms that regulate self-renewal and commitment to differentiation of PHSC, it is necessary to purify these cells and to develop assays for their growth in vitro. In the present study, a rapid and simple, widely applicable procedure to highly purify day 14 spleen colony-forming cells (day 14 CFU-S) is described. Low density bone marrow cells (rho less than or equal to 1.078 g/cm3) were enriched by two successive light-activated cell sorting procedures. In the first sort, cells within a predetermined light scatter (blast cell) window that are wheat germ agglutinin/Texas Red (WGA/TxR) positive and mAb 15-1.4.1/fluorescein isothiocyanate negative (granulocyte-monocyte marker) were selected. In the second sort, cells were selected on the basis of retention of the supravital dye rhodamine 123 (Rh123). Cells that take up little Rh123 (Rh123 dull cells) and those that take up more Rh123 (Rh123 bright cells) were 237-fold and 132-fold enriched, respectively, for day 14 CFU-S. Both Rh123 fractions were cultured for various time periods in vitro in the presence of mast cell growth factor (MGF), with or without interleukin 3 (IL-3) or IL-1 alpha. Both Rh123 fractions proliferated in response to MGF alone as determined by a [3H]TdR assay or by counting nucleated cells present in the cultures over time. MGF also acted synergistically with both IL-3 and IL-1 alpha to promote stem cell proliferation. Stimulation of both Rh123 fractions with MGF alone did not result in a net increase of day 14 CFU-S. Stimulation with MGF + IL-3 or MGF + IL-alpha resulted in a 4.4- or 2.6-fold increase of day 14 CFU-S in the Rh123 dull fraction, and an 11.6-fold or 2.6-fold increase of day 14 CFU-S in the Rh123 bright fraction, respectively. The data presented in this paper indicate that in vitro MGF acts on primitive hematopoietic stem cells by itself and also is a potent synergistic factor in combination with IL-3 or IL-1 alpha.