The proliferation of normal hematopoietic cells is strictly factor dependent, while leukemic cell lines and primary leukemic cells are frequently factor independent. Although autocrine growth stimulation of human leukemias is occasionally observed in vitro, it is possible that mutations of signal-transduction or cell-cycle control genes may also be important in the development of factor independence. We have previously shown that the proto-oncogene Raf-1, a 70-kd serine/threonine protein kinase, is rapidly phosphorylated and activated by hematopoietic growth factors such as granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), interleukin-3 (IL-3), and Steel factor and is likely to be an important intermediate in mitogenic signal transduction pathways in hematopoietic cells. In an effort to better understand the possible role of abnormal signal transduction in the development of factor independence, we compared the state of phosphorylation and associated kinase activity of Raf-1 between a series of factor-dependent human and murine-myeloid normal cells or cell lines and a series of factor-independent myeloid cell lines. In factor-dependent myeloid cells (normal neutrophils; monocytes; and the cell lines MO7, 32Dc13, and FDC-P1), Raf-1 phosphorylation and associated kinase activity was strictly regulated by the supply of growth factor. In contrast, each of eight factor-independent leukemic cell lines examined, HL-60, KG-1, K562, U937, JOSK-S, JOSK-M, JOSK-K, and JOSK-I, expressed hyperphosphorylated Raf-1 with increased Raf-1 associated kinase activity in the absence of growth factor addition. To further explore the relationship of Raf-1 to factor-independent growth, factor-independent sublines were derived from two factor-dependent cell lines, MO7 and FDC-P1, by culture in CSF-deprived medium. Also, several factor-independent sublines were derived by transfection of a cDNA encoding p210BCR/ABL into three different cell lines: MO7, 32Dc13, and FDC-P1. In each case, the new sublines expressed constitutively hyperphosphorylated and activated Raf-1. The correlation of hyperphosphorylation of Raf-1 with factor independence was also observed with primary acute myeloblastic leukemia cells. The rate of "spontaneous" proliferation of primary acute myeloblastic leukemia (AML) cells in vitro correlated with the extent of Raf-1 phosphorylation. These results suggest that the evolution of myeloid leukemic cells to factor independence is associated with phosphorylation and activation of Raf-1, implicating Raf-1 and signal transduction pathways which activate RAf-1 in this process.