Dendritic cells (DC) are a distinct population of leukocytes and specialized antigen-presenting cells for T cell responses. Prior work has shown that GM-CSF can induce the development of large numbers of DC from proliferating progenitors in mouse bone marrow. We have monitored the effects of potentially enhancing and suppressive cytokines in these cultures. In this system, many immature DC develop from proliferating precursors during the first six days of culture, and between days 6-8 maturation of typical nonadherent and nonreplicating DC takes place. The maturation is accompanied by a large increase in the expression of major histocompatibilities complex class II (MHC II) and B7-2/CD86, and in mixed leukocyte reaction stimulating activity. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), previously shown to be required for development of human DC, was found to enhance the maturation of mouse DC in the last two days of culture. Transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1), on the other hand, almost totally blocked DC maturation, but it had to be given in the first six days of culture when the DC were actively proliferating. TGF-beta 1 did not block the production of immature, MHC II-positive but B7-2/CD86-negative DC. Maturation would take place between days 6-8 as long as the cultures were depleted of Fc-receptor-bearing cells, or if TNF-alpha were added. In both instances, maturation was not blocked even when TGF-beta 1 remained in the culture. We conclude that the development of DC, in response to GM-CSF, can be modified by other cytokines. TGF-beta 1 is suppressive but only indirectly via Fc-receptor-bearing suppressive cells, presumably suppressive macrophages, while TNF-alpha enhances the final maturation of DC.