Time course studies revealed that the combination of Flt-3 ligand (FL), Steel factor (SF) and interleukin-3 (IL-3) did not elicit as large an amplification of the long-term culture-initiating cell (LTC-IC) population in serum-free cultures of CD34+ CD38- cord blood (CB) cells as was obtained in similar cultures of adult human CD34+ CD38- bone marrow (BM) cells (4- v 90-fold maximum increases), even though both total and colony-forming cell (CFC) numbers initially increased more rapidly in CB cultures. Multifactorial analysis of the short-term (10 d) effects of different cytokines identified FL and IL-6 in combination with the soluble IL-6 receptor (sIL-6R) as most important for expanding the CB LTC-IC population. In contrast, their counterparts in adult BM were most effectively stimulated by FL, SF and IL-3. For rapid generation of increased numbers of CFC, SF with either FL or IL-6/sIL-6R were found to be the most important contributors in cultures of CD34+ CD38- CB cells, whereas, in analogous BM cultures, IL-6/sIL-6R and TPO (in addition to FL, SF and IL-3) were required. These findings reinforce the principle of altered cytokine responsiveness as a hallmark of early haemopoietic cell differentiation and demonstrate how cytokine requirements may change during human ontogeny. Identification of conditions for optimizing the expansion of different subsets of primitive CB cells has additional important implications for clinical transplantation and gene transfer.