Mutations at the Steel (Sl) and dominant white spotting (W) loci affect three embryonic lineages: primordial germ cells, hemopoietic stem cells and neural-crest-derived melanocytes. The gene products of these loci are a peptide growth factor, called here stem cell factor (SCF), and its tyrosine kinase receptor, the proto-oncogene c-kit. We have studied how chicken recombinant SCF affects the development of melanocytes from quail neural crest cells in secondary culture under defined conditions. We observed that the total number of neural crest cells, of melanocytes and of their precursors was higher in the presence than in the absence of SCF. Labelling with bromodeoxyuridine showed that SCF had a modest and transient mitogenic effect on the neural crest population. SCF also enhanced the differentiation rate of melanocyte precursors, recognized by the "melanocyte early marker" monoclonal antibody (MelEM MAb), and of melanocytes, since the proportion of both subpopulations significantly increased in the presence of SCF. Finally, SCF increased the survival of the neural crest population since in its presence the total number of cells remained stable while it gradually declined in control cultures. Our results support the notion that SCF sustains the survival of the neural crest population and stimulates the rate of the melanogenic differentiation process.