OP-1, also known as BMP-7, is a member of the TGF-beta superfamily of proteins and was originally identified on the basis of its ability to induce new bone formation in vivo. OP-1 mRNA is found in the developing kidney and adrenal gland as well as in some brain regions (Ozkaynak et al.  Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 179:116-123). We have tested the effect of recombinant human OP-1 on quail trunk neural crest cultures. The number of catecholamine-positive cells which developed after 7 days in vitro in the presence of OP-1 was increased in a dose-dependent manner, with a greater than 100-fold maximal stimulation observed. The increase in the number of catecholamine-positive cells in the presence of OP-1 was paralleled by an increase in the number of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH)-positive cells. In contrast, total and melanocyte cell number were unaffected by the presence of OP-1. The number of Islet-1-immunoreactive cells was also increased by OP-1, but to only about half the value seen for TH. Double label experiments revealed these Islet-1-positive cells were a subset of the TH-positive cells. Inhibitors of DNA synthesis prevented the OP-1-mediated increase in adrenergic cell number, indicating that OP-1 does not act on a postmitotic cell population. However, labeling studies with bromodeoxyuridine indicated that OP-1 did not increase the proportion of the cell population engaged in DNA synthesis. Thus, the OP-1-mediated increase in adrenergic cell number most likely occurs as a result of the enhanced survival of a subpopulation of adrenergic precursors or an increase in their probability of adrenergic differentiation, but not by increasing the mitotic rate of adrenergic precursors or adrenergic cells themselves. In contrast to OP-1, TGF-beta 1 decreased adrenergic cell number. When OP-1 and TGF-beta 1 were added simultaneously, TGF-beta 1 antagonized the OP-1-mediated increase in adrenergic cell number in a dose-dependent manner.