An in vitro culture system to generate human osteoclasts (OC) was recently described in which OC precursors in the human peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) population differentiate in the presence of murine ST-2 stromal cells. We used this culture system to define the cytokine environment in which human OC form and to determine the separate contributions of the stromal and hematopoietic elements. We designed a panel of reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) primers that specifically amplify the respective murine or human mRNA species that correspond to cytokines and their cognate receptors previously shown to promote or inhibit OC differentiation. ST-2 cells were cocultured with human PBMC for up to 21 days in the presence of 1alpha,25(OH)(2) vitamin D(3), dexamethasone, and recombinant human macrophage-colony stimulating factor (M-CSF). OC formation was monitored by the appearance of cells that were positive for tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP) and able to form resorption lacunae on slices of dentine. We found that the ST-2 cells in these cultures express messenger RNA (mRNA) encoding a repertoire of many of the reported osteoclastogenic factors (interleukins [IL]-1/IL-1R1, IL-11, IL-6/IL-6R, and IL-17 transforming growth factor [TGF]-beta), as well as the recently described OC differentiation factor (ODF/TRANCE/RANKL). The stromal cells also expressed mRNA encoding two molecules shown to be inhibitory to osteoclastogenesis, osteoprotegerin (OPG) and IL-18. OPG, IL-1, IL-1R1, IL-6, IL-6R, IL-11R, IL-17, IL-18, IL-18R, TGF-beta, and M-CSF were expressed by both the stromal cells and the PBMC. Expression of mRNA encoding RANK, IL-1R2, and c-fms, was specific for the PBMC. In addition, PBMC were found to express sIL-6R, granulocyte macrophage (GM)-CSF, GM-CSFRalpha, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha. Whereas this indicated that human OC formation occurs in a complex environment of many positive and negative influences, we identified three apparent features of the cytokine environment that may be a characteristic of normal osteoclast formation. First, the ratio of mouse ODF:OPG mRNA was found to increase during the cocultures, consistent with a key role for ODF in the promotion by stromal cells of OC formation. Second, we found that mRNA encoding IL-1 and IL-17, as well as IL-6 and sIL-6R, were coordinately expressed by the PBMC. Third, analysis of the culture medium showed that the PBMC secreted IL-1, IL-6, and TNF-alpha protein only in coculture with ST-2 cells during the first few days of osteoclast development. We conclude that human OC formation occurs in a complex environment of many positive and negative influences; however, these are likely to be strictly regulated by a coordinated cytokine response of both stromal and hematopoietic cells.