Cell surface gangliosides are potent modulators of cellular proliferation. We hypothesize that gangliosides shed by tumor cells modulate hematopoiesis and contribute to human tumor-associated suppression of hematopoiesis. To test this hypothesis, we determined the effects on myeloid colony formation by human bone marrow mononuclear cells of total gangliosides isolated from human brain and of seven highly purified individual ganglioside species (GM1, GM2, GD1a, GD1b, GD2, GD3, and GT1b). Total human brain gangliosides and certain individual species, GD1a, GD1b, and GT1b, significantly inhibited myeloid colony formation (number as well as size). The most complex molecules, GD1a, GD1b, and GT1b, were the most inhibitory, suggesting that the degree of inhibition is related to ganglioside structural complexity. To extend these findings, we also investigated certain tumor-derived (neuroblastoma) gangliosides, which we found inhibited both myeloid colony formation and 3H-thymidine incorporation by human bone marrow mononuclear cells. These data suggest a role for gangliosides, which are shed by proliferating cells, in the regulation of human hematopoiesis and may explain the bone marrow hypoplasia observed in association with many human malignancies.