Mice with the recessive "motheaten" (me) or "viable motheaten" (mev) mutations have severe immunologic disturbances and die at an early age. The function of hemopoietic progenitor cells and microenvironmental elements that regulate their growth and differentiation were studied in mev mice with two types of long term bone marrow cultures. Cells from bone marrow of homozygous defective mev/mev mice were non-productive under conditions that normally support replication of stem cells and production of neutrophil granulocytes. Similarly, in a different culture system, lymphocytes were produced from normal littermate, but not mev/mev bone marrow. Initial overgrowth of cells having macrophage-like characteristics occurred in both culture systems with marrow from defective mice. Co-cultures of normal and defective bone marrow cells were always non-productive. In contrast, supernatants of mev/mev bone marrow cultures did not have a detrimental effect on cultures of normal cells, implying that the suppression was cell-associated. Furthermore, there was no evidence for abnormal release of granulocyte or macrophage growth factors in mev bone marrow cultures. A small population of cells in mev/mev bone marrow cultures were morphologically similar to "stromal" cells that support lymphohemopoiesis. Certain culture strategies could be used to enrich for these. mev/mev stromal cells had affinity for normal lymphocytes; however, they did not support lymphocyte growth. The long term bone marrow cultures thus reveal an apparent imbalance in the regulatory mechanisms affected by these single gene mutations. This is manifested by preferential or aberrant growth of one type of adherent cell and a possible functional abnormality of stromal cells. mev mice could provide an ideal model for investigating cell-associated molecules that normally limit progenitor cell replication.