The myeloid precursor cell line KU812 exhibits a constitutive potential to differentiate into basophilic cells. In the present study, the influence of recombinant human (rh)IL-2, rhIL-3, and recombinant human granulocyte-macrophage-CSF on basophilic differentiation of KU812-F cells was studied. Of all cytokines tested, rhIL-3 induced a significant increase in formation of metachromatically granulated cells (from 10% in control cultures up to 30% in cultures supplemented with 100 U/ml of rhIL-3) as well as dose-dependent (1.5- to 3 fold) increase in cellular histamine in KU812-F cell cultures. In addition, KU812-F cells exposed to rhIL-3 bound more IgE antibody than cells cultured in control medium with up to 3.3-fold increases in the mean fluorescence intensity on days 2 and/or 5 compared with control (p less than 0.001). RhIL-3 failed to induce significant changes in expression of the Tac-reactive subunit of the IL-2R (CD25), surface aminopeptidase N (CD13), ICAM-1 Ag (CD54), or CD40 Ag on KU812-F cells. To investigate the mechanism of IL-3 action on KU812-F cells, receptor analyses were performed by using 125I-radiolabeled rhIL-3. Quantitative binding studies and Scatchard plot analyses revealed the presence of a single class of 1910 to 2460 high affinity IL-3-binding sites per KU812-F cell with an apparent dissociation constant of 1.22 to 2.35 x 10(-9) M. Together, these results show that rhIL-3 promotes basophilic differentiation of KU812-F cells through a specific receptor.