Human satellite cells, obtained by surgical biopsies of traumatized legs of healthy individuals, were grown in culture in the presence of different concentrations of the phorbol ester tetradecanoyl-phorbol 12 acetate (TPA). Satellite cells, after an initial duplicative period, fused into large multinucleated myotubes which readily synthesized myosin and acetylcholine receptor (AChR). The presence of TPA at concentrations up to 10(-7) M did not affect the differentiation pattern, while higher concentrations were toxic. Thus human satellite cells are capable of differentiating in the presence of phorbol esters which block differentiation of embryonic myoblasts . We then examined the appearance of TPA-resistant cells during human muscle histogenesis, since we had observed that differentiation of human myoblasts from a 6-week-old limb was completely and reversibly inhibited by 10(-7) M TPA. Differentiation of myoblasts from 6-, 7- and 8-week-old fetuses was completely inhibited by TPA. Myoblasts from 10-week-old limbs did not form myotubes in the presence of TPA; however, immunohistochemical staining with an antimyosin antibody revealed the presence of a few mononucleated myosin-positive cells which escaped the TPA-induced block of differentiation. At 12 weeks of development, a few oligonucleated, myosin-positive myotubes developed in cultures treated with TPA, and the level of AChR expressed (measured as [125I] alpha-bungarotoxin bound) reached 20% of controls. At 14 weeks of development, about half of the cells in culture were TPA-resistant and by 16 weeks of development no major differences could be detected between control and treated cells. We conclude from these data that a population of TPA-resistant myogenic cells emerges between the 10th and 14th week of human limb development and suggest that this population represents satellite cells.