In this study, the authors demonstrate the expression of mRNA and the presence of protein for macrophage colony-stimulating factor (MCSF) in atherosclerotic lesions from humans and rabbits. In situ hybridization of serial sections of human fatty streaks demonstrated expression of MCSF mRNA by cells dispersed throughout the lesions. Immunocytochemical staining with a panel of MCSF-specific antibodies showed extensive cell-associated staining of all of the cell types in the lesions. Immunocytochemical studies of atherosclerotic lesions from Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic (WHHL) and cholesterol-fed rabbits demonstrated a similar cell-associated pattern of staining. There was no MCSF-specific staining of aortas from normal rabbits or of cultured aortic smooth muscle cells from either humans or rabbits. Macrophage-derived foam cells (MFC) were isolated from the aortas of ballooned, cholesterol-fed rabbits. A Northern blot demonstrated that RNA isolated from the MFC hybridized with a human cDNA probe for MCSF. RNA from alveolar macrophages isolated simultaneously from the same rabbits did not hybridize with the MCSF probe. Conditioned media from an 18- to 24-hour incubation of the MFC contained colony-stimulating activity as demonstrated in a mouse bone marrow culture assay. Most of this colony-stimulating activity was neutralized by preincubating the conditioned media with an MCSF-specific antibody.