A panel of two poorly differentiated (HA22T/VGH and SK-Hep-1) and six well-differentiated (HuH-6-cl 5, HuH-7, PLC/PRF/5, Hep G2, Hep 3B, and Tong) human hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cell lines were studied for the production of colony-stimulating factors (CSFs) using the granulocyte and macrophage colony formation (CFU-GM) assay, immunocytochemical staining, and Northern blotting. Medium conditioned by untreated HA22T/VGH cells contained a high level of CSFs that could stimulate the in vitro colony formation of human myeloid progenitor cells. The HA22T/VGH cell-derived CSF had an apparent molecular weight of 23 kD. Its activity could be effectively neutralized by antiserum against granulocyte-macrophage CSF (GM-CSF) but not by antibodies to other hematopoietic growth factors, including G-CSF, M-CSF, interleukin-3 (IL-3), and IL-6. Correspondingly, immunocytochemical studies using monoclonal anti-GM-CSF showed a strong positive reaction in the cytoplasm of the HA22T/VGH cells. Northern blot analysis revealed that untreated HA22T/VGH cells expressed a considerable amount of GM-CSF mRNA, confirming that GM-CSF production was constitutive. At optimal concentrations, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), IL-1beta, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), and tumor-promoting phorbol diester (TPA) could all stimulate HA22T/VGH cells to secrete GM-CSF. In addition to HA22T/VGH, SK-Hep-1 cells could also produce GM-CSF, although less effectively, whereas all the well-differentiated HCC cell lines tested were negative for CSF production. Morphologic, cytochemical, and immunocytochemical examinations demonstrated that both poorly differentiated CSF-producing HCC cell lines (HA22T/VGH and SK-Hep-1) were macrophage-like in morphology, possessed nonspecific esterase (NSE) activity, and expressed CD14, CD68, and HLA-DR on their surface, while all the well-differentiated HCC cell lines were epithelioid and lacked myeloid differentiation antigens. These results suggest that monocytoid features and CSF production may be differentiation markers of hepatocytes at the immature stages, amd that the HA22T/VGH and SK-Hep-1 cell lines may be valuable tools for the study of hepatic function and differentiation.