Photosynthetic cyanobacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, free-living amoebae, and ciliated protozoa may support growth of Legionella pneumophila. Studies were done with two tap water cultures (WS1 and WS2) containing L. pneumophila and associated microbiota to characterize growth-supporting activity and assess the relative importance of the microbiota in supporting multiplication of L. pneumophila. The water cultures were incubated in the dark at 35 degrees C. The growth-supporting factor(s) was separated from each culture by filtration through 1-micron-pore-size membrane filters. The retentate was then suspended in sterile tap water. Multiplication of L. pneumophila occurred when both the retentate suspension and the filtrate from either culture were inoculated into sterile tap water. L. pneumophila did not multiply in tap water inoculated with only the filtrate, even though filtration did not reduce the concentration of L. pneumophila or heterotrophic bacteria in either culture. Growth-supporting activity of the retentate suspension from WS1 was inactivated at 60 degrees C but unaffected at 0, 25, and 45 degrees C after 30-min incubations. Filtration experiments indicated that the growth-supporting factor(s) in WS1 was 2 to 5 micron in diameter. Ciliated protozoa were not detected in either culture. Hartmannellid amoebae were conclusively demonstrated in WS2 but not in WS1. L. pneumophila multiplied in tap water inoculated with the amoebae (10(3)/ml) and the 1-micron filtrate of WS2. No multiplication occurred in tap water inoculated with the filtrate only. Growth-supporting activity for L. pneumophila may be present in plumbing systems; hartmannellid amoebae appear to be important determinants of multiplication of L. pneumophila in some tap water cultures.