Antigen-presenting, major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II-rich dendritic cells are known to arise from bone marrow. However, marrow lacks mature dendritic cells, and substantial numbers of proliferating less-mature cells have yet to be identified. The methodology for inducing dendritic cell growth that was recently described for mouse blood now has been modified to MHC class II-negative precursors in marrow. A key step is to remove the majority of nonadherent, newly formed granulocytes by gentle washes during the first 2-4 d of culture. This leaves behind proliferating clusters that are loosely attached to a more firmly adherent "stroma." At days 4-6 the clusters can be dislodged, isolated by 1-g sedimentation, and upon reculture, large numbers of dendritic cells are released. The latter are readily identified on the basis of their distinct cell shape, ultrastructure, and repertoire of antigens, as detected with a panel of monoclonal antibodies. The dendritic cells express high levels of MHC class II products and act as powerful accessory cells for initiating the mixed leukocyte reaction. Neither the clusters nor mature dendritic cells are generated if macrophage colony-stimulating factor rather than granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) is applied. Therefore, GM-CSF generates all three lineages of myeloid cells (granulocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells). Since > 5 x 10(6) dendritic cells develop in 1 wk from precursors within the large hind limb bones of a single animal, marrow progenitors can act as a major source of dendritic cells. This feature should prove useful for future molecular and clinical studies of this otherwise trace cell type.