The role of mononuclear phagocyte-specific colony-stimulating factor (CSF-1) in human monocyte to macrophage differentiation was investigated. The addition of 1000 U/ml of CSF-1 to serum-free monocyte cultures resulted in monocyte survival comparable to that in cultures containing 5% AB serum, whereas cells in serum- and CSF-1-free medium lost their viability in 3 to 5 days. The requirement for CSF-1 coincided with the time (40 to 64 hr of culture) when the major changes in morphology and biochemical function took place in monocytes undergoing differentiation into macrophages. If CSF-1 was removed from the cultures before this time, death of the monocytes resulted. In cultures containing CSF-1, as in serum containing cultures, the lysosomal enzyme acid phosphatase was enhanced 10- to 20-fold by day 4 to 5. Superoxide production in response to phorbol myristic acetate was maintained in CSF-1 cultured monocytes, but declined with time in monocytes cultured in serum. The expression of monocyte-macrophage antigens p150.95 (LeuM5), OKM1, LeuM3, Fc receptors (32.2), and HLA-DR had increased in CSF-1 containing cultures at day 4. When antigen expression was analyzed at day 2 to 3, when cell size and 90 degrees scatter characteristics were still identical to control serum-free cultures, only p150.95, HLA-DR and FcR expression were enhanced by CSF-1. Low amounts of lipopolysaccharide (0.1 ng/ml) were found to enhance monocyte survival in the absence of added CSF-1. Lipopolysaccharide-containing cultures were found to produce CSF-1 (up to 450 U/ml, as detected by radioimmunoassay). Lipopolysaccharide (1 microgram/ml), however, did not induce enhanced expression of the maturation-related antigens. Based on these observations we conclude that CSF-1 is enhancing human monocyte survival and is involved in the events leading to the differentiation of monocytes into macrophages.