We have previously shown that a combination of the cytokines interleukin (IL)-1, IL-11, leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), and glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) can convert rat fetal (E14.5) mesencephalic progenitor cells into tyrosine hydroxylase (TH)-immunoreactive (ir) neurons in vitro. The experiments described here characterize the mesencephalic progenitor cells and their cytokine-induced conversion into dopamine (DA) neurons. For all experiments, we used bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU)-ir cultures of (E14.5) mesencephalic progenitor cells that had been expanded at least 21 days. We first demonstrated that IL-1 induced DA neuron conversion in mesencephalic progenitors, but not in striatal progenitors (P < 0.001). Thus, these cells should be classified as lineage-restricted progenitors, and not omnipotent stem cells. To further characterize cell populations in these cultures, we used monoclonal antibodies against Hu (an early marker for neurons), growth-associated protein (GAP)-43 (a marker for neuronal process extension), TH (a marker for DA neurons), and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP, a marker for astrocytes). We assessed (E14.5) mesencephalic progenitor cell cultures (plated at 125,000 cells/cm2) incubated in the cytokine mixture (described above) or in complete media (CM, negative control). Following 7 days incubation, GFAP-positive cells formed a nearly confluent carpet in both types of cultures. However, numbers of Hu-ir and GAP-43-ir cells in the cytokine-incubated cultures far exceeded those in CM-incubated controls (P = 0.0003, P = 0.0001, respectively), while numbers of TH-ir cells were 58-fold greater in the cytokine-incubated cultures versus CM-incubated controls. The TH phenotype persisted for 7 days following withdrawal of the differentiation media. Numerous double-labeled cells that were BrdU-ir and also TH-ir, or Hu-ir and also TH-ir, were observed in the cytokine-incubated cultures. These data suggest that cytokines "drive" the conversion of progenitor cells into DA neurons.