Dendritic cells (DC) are professional antigen presenting cells (APC) able to activate naive T cells and initiate the immune response. They are present in most tissues at very low concentrations and are difficult to isolate. DC can be obtained in larger numbers by their propagation from progenitors present in blood, bone marrow and spleen. However, biochemical studies and biological analysis of DC functions require very large numbers of these cells. In this paper, we described a two-step culture system using unfractionated splenocytes from BALB/c mice as a source of DC progenitors. The proliferative capacity of the progenitors is amplified in the first step of the culture (day 0-6) using different combinations of early acting cytokines combined or not with granulocyte-macrophage CSF (GM-CSF). The second step of the culture starts at day 6 with the removal of early growth factors in order to allow the differentiation and final maturation of DC during 2-3 weeks of culture with flt-3 ligand (flt-3L) and GM-CSF. The addition of Stem Cell Factor (SCF) or IL-6 to the standard combination of flt-3L+/-GM-CSF produces a large increase in the proliferation of GM and DC progenitors (28 times and 11 times respectively) in the first step of the culture. This proliferative wave of DC progenitors is followed by the production of a high percentage of immature and mature DC in flt-3L+GM-CSF stimulated cultures. The best combination of early cytokines in terms of proliferative activity and subsequent level of DC production was flt-3L+IL-6+GM-CSF, which permitted the generation of 1 to 2x10(9) DC from one single spleen. Using this growth factor cocktail, a mixture of immature (2/3) and mature (1/3) DC was produced until day 14 of culture, and levels of MHC class II and costimulatory molecules (CD40, B7.2) increased between 2 and 4 weeks of incubation, or within 2 days when stimulated by IL-4 or LPS. The splenic DC produced after 2 weeks of culture are fully functional, exhibiting a high capacity of endocytosis when immature, a strong stimulatory reactivity in mixed leukocyte reaction and consistently producing high levels of bioactive IL-12 p70 after CD 40 ligation in the presence of LPS between 13 and 43 days of culture.