Human hematopoietic stem cells are thought to express the CD34 stem cell antigen, low numbers of HLA-DR and Thy1 antigens, but no lineage commitment antigens, CD38, or CD45RA antigens. However, fluorescence-activated cell sorted CD34+ subpopulations contain not more than 1% to 5% primitive progenitors capable of initiating and sustaining growth in long-term bone marrow culture initiating cells (LTBMC-ICs). We have recently shown that culture of fresh human marrow CD34+/HLA-DR- cells separated from a stromal layer by a microporous membrane ('stroma-noncontact' culture) results in the maintenance of 40% of LTBMC-ICs. We hypothesized that reselection of CD34+ subpopulations still present after several weeks in stroma-noncontact cultures may result in the selection of cells more highly enriched for human LTBMC-ICs. Fresh marrow CD34+/HLA-DR- cells were cultured for 2 to 3 weeks in stroma-noncontact cultures. Cultured progeny was then sorted on the basis of CD34, HLA-DR, or CD33 antigen expression, and sorted cells evaluated for the presence of LTBMC-ICs by limiting dilution analysis. We show that (1) LTBMC-ICs are four times more frequent in cultured CD34+/HLA-DR- cells (4.6% ± 1.7%) than in cultured CD34+/HLA-DR- cells (1.3% ± 0.4%). This suggests that HLA-DR antigen expression may depend on the activation status of primitive cells rather than their lineage commitment. We then sorted cultured cells on the basis of the myeloid commitment antigen, CD33. (2) These studies show that cultured CD34+/CD33- cells contain 4% to 8% LTBMC- ICs, whereas cultured CD34+/CD33(+bright) cells contain only 0.1% ± 0.03% LTBMC-ICs. Because LTBMC-ICs are maintained significantly better in stroma- noncontact cultures supplemented with macrophage inflammatory protein 1α (MIP-1α) and interleukin-3 (IL-3) (Verfaillie et al. J Exp Med 179:643, 1994), we evaluated the frequency of LTBMC-ICs in CD34+/CD33- cells present in such cultures. (3) CD34+/CD33- cells present in MIP-1α + IL-3- supplemented cultures contain up to 30% LTBMC-ICs. The increased frequency of LTBMC-ICs in cultured CD34+ subpopulations may be the result of terminal differentiation of less primitive progenitors, loss of cells that fail to respond to the culture conditions or recruitment of quiescent LTBMC-ICs. The capability to select progenitor populations containing up to 30% LTBMC-ICs should prove useful in studies examining the growth requirements, self- renewal, and multilineage differentiation capacity of human hematopoietic stem cells at the single-cell level.