The effects of granulocyte-macrophage (GM-CSF) or macrophage-CSF on in vitro proliferation of human alveolar macrophages (AM) were evaluated. AM of healthy volunteers incubated with recombinant human GM-CSF revealed incorporation of [3H]thymidine in vitro. The maximum incorporation was observed at 20 U/ml of GM-CSF on day 3. The proportion of proliferating cells incubated with 20 U/ml of GM-CSF from day 3 to day 4 was 8 to 11% of the total, whereas 3 to 5% of cells proliferated without GM-CSF. The number of cell nuclei increased 1.30- to 1.68-fold in the initial 7 days during incubation with 20 U/ml of GM-CSF, whereas there was a 1.07- to 1.13-fold increase without GM-CSF. Conditioned media obtained by the incubation with human lung tissue exhibited similar effects as recombinant human GM-CSF on macrophages. The effects were completely abrogated by antibody against human GM-CSF. Immunohistochemically, GM-CSF was detected in lung cells including AM, alveolar epithelium, alveolar interstitial cells, and endothelial cells. In contrast, recombinant macrophage-CSF did not induce the proliferation of human AM, although it has been known to promote the proliferation of murine AM. These observations suggest that GM-CSF plays an important role among the regulatory factors that locally support the population of AM in human lungs.