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Higher numbers of eosinophil/basophil colony-forming units (Eo/B CFU) are observed in blood of atopic individuals, and can be enhanced in atopic asthmatics by allergen-inhalation challenge. It is known that mature basophils and eosinophils synthesize cytokines relevant to allergic inflammation. To investigate the potential role of growth factors in allergic disease we examined the expression of the hemopoietic cytokines, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and interleukin (IL)-5, in differentiating Eo/B colony cells from normal and atopic individuals, and from atopic asthmatics before and after allergen-inhalation challenge. Peripheral blood was collected from two normal and 12 atopic individuals, and also from 25 atopic asthmatics before and 24 h after allergen challenge. Nonadherent mononuclear cells were isolated and grown in semisolid growth medium. Eo/B colonies were selected and cytospins were prepared for immunocytochemical analysis of colony cells. Eo/B colonies, especially carbol chromotrope 2R+ cells, selected at Days 10, 14, and 18 from atopic donors contained messenger RNA for GM-CSF by combined in situ reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction and cytochemistry, and demonstrated time-dependent expression of GM-CSF by immunocytochemistry (P = 0.007). Atopic individuals demonstrated a higher percentage of cells expressing GM-CSF than did normal subjects under all growth conditions when examined at Day 14 (P = 0.04). Atopic asthmatics challenged with inhaled allergen who demonstrated a dual airway response, an increase in the number of blood eosinophils (P = 0.0001), and an increase in the number of Eo/B CFU (P = 0.02) also demonstrated a significant increase in the percentage of colony cells expressing immunostainable GM-CSF (P = 0.0009), but only a variable effect on those expressing IL-5, 24 h after allergen. These results suggest that GM-CSF expression by differentiating Eo/Bs may provide an additional stimulus in vivo to enhance Eo/B progenitor differentiation in atopic and asthmatic individuals, especially after allergen challenge. The concept of microenvironmental differentiation, where blood progenitor cells may aid in their own differentiation, is supported by these ex vivo findings.