Three human leukemia cell lines (TALL-101, AML-193, and MV4-11) that require granulocyte/macrophage-colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) for growth in a chemically defined medium were examined for their response to recombinant human (rh) cytokines. Either rh interleukin (IL)-3 or rhGM-CSF alone supported the long term growth of all three cell lines, and the two growth factors acted synergistically to stimulate the proliferation of the early T lymphoblastic leukemia (TALL-101) and of the monocytic leukemia (AML-193) cells. However, IL-3 antagonized the proliferation of the biphenotypic B-myelomonocytic leukemia (MV4-11) cells in the presence of GM-CSF when both factors were used at very low concentrations. The rh granulocyte (G)-CSF independently supported the long and short term growth of AML-193 and MV4-11, respectively, and synergized with GM-CSF in inducing proliferation of these cells. By contrast, G-CSF did not stimulate TALL-101 cell growth and antagonized the effect of GM-CSF such that proliferation was arrested. Although neither rh macrophage (M)-CSF nor rhIL-1 alpha independently promoted proliferation of the three leukemia cell lines, these cytokines were able to either up- or down-regulate the GM-CSF-dependent growth of these cells. Taken together, these data demonstrate that leukemic cells often require the synergistic action of several cytokines for optimal growth, whereas other combinations of factors may be growth-inhibitory. This raises the possibility that multiple hemopoietic growth factors sustain or control leukemic cell proliferation also in vivo. In addition, the observation the G-CSF, M-CSF, and IL-1 alpha can, in some cases, arrest cell proliferation without inducing differentiation suggests that the programs of proliferative arrest and differentiation in leukemic cells can be dissociated.