Because several human hematopoietic growth factors have been identified and shown to be effective for treatment of congenital or iatrogenic neutropenias, and cord blood contains stimulatory activities for blood-forming cells, we postulated that identification of these factors and analysis of their regulatory role in normal neonates would provide a rationale for their use in treating neonatal infections associated with neutropenia. We studied the plasma levels of granulocyte and granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factors (G-CSF and GM-CSF, respectively) and the frequency of granulomonopoietic colony-forming cells (CFU-GM) in the umbilical cord blood of normal term neonates. Plasma growth factor levels were measured by a biologic assay. Circulating hematopoietic progenitors were assayed for colony formation with different recombinant growth factors used as exogenous growth stimulators. The cell cycle status of these progenitors was analyzed by the thymidine suicide technique. At birth the leukocyte count (mean +/- SD) was 11.0 +/- 3.9 x 10(9)L and the neutrophil count was 5.6 +/- 2.6 x 10(9)/L. The incidence of CFU-GM was significantly higher in umbilical cord blood than in normal adult peripheral blood (p less than 0.005) with up to 40% of the cells in S phase (less than 10% in normal adults). Plasma levels of G-CSF and GM-CSF at birth were 40.8 +/- 2.8 U/ml and 19.9 +/- 5.2 U/ml, respectively (normal adult plasma levels 2.5 +/- 1.5 U/ml for G-CSF and undetectable for GM-CSF). These high levels of G-CSF and GM-CSF in umbilical cord blood of normal neonates might play a role in maintaining adequate neutrophil production.