The hematopoietic stimulatory activities of human recombinant IL-3 and granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) were directly compared using highly enriched human bone marrow progenitor target cells. IL-3 supported a larger number of erythroid and megakaryocytic progenitor cells than did GM-CSF, while GM-CSF supported more myeloid progenitors. IL-3 directly stimulated the division and migration of primitive erythroid burst forming units, while GM-CSF merely sustained their net survival in culture without promoting division and expansion. IL-3 promoted the formation of larger numbers of multipotential granulocyte-erythroid-macrophage-megakaryocyte colony forming unit--derived colonies than did GM-CSF. These data indicate that human IL-3 and GM-CSF have overlapping but distinct hematopoietic activities, and suggest a potential role for the clinical application of combined IL-3/GM-CSF therapy.