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In this report, we describe a novel long-term bone marrow culture (LTBMC) system to study the origin and generation of natural killer (NK) cells from NK precursors. Rat bone marrow was cultured for 4 wk in RPMI 1640 with 5% fetal calf serum and 2-mercaptoethanol to allow the formation of an adherent stromal cell layer containing NK precursor cells. After addition of interleukin 2 (IL-2), the LTBMC generated high numbers (up to 100-fold expansion in 7 d) of pure 3.2.3+ large granular lymphocytes with lytic activity against NK-sensitive and -resistant tumor targets, as well as antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity. NK activity in LTBMC could be detected 3 d after addition of as little as 1 U/ml rIL-2, whereas lymphokine-activated killer activity was found 5 d after addition of at least 10 U/ml rIL-2. In vivo depletion and in vitro complement lysis studies showed that the NK precursor cells in LTBMC did not express the NK-associated surface markers asialo GM1 or 3.2.3. We also found that LTBMC cells did not exhibit colony growth in granulocyte/macrophage or spleen colony-forming unit assays. The generation of NK cells from NK precursors required, in addition to IL- 2, a second growth/maturation factor(s), which was present in the conditioned medium of the LTBMC. This LTBMC system provides a unique in vitro model to study the development of NK cells from precursor cells, the role of the bone marrow stromal microenvironment in this development, and the lineage relationship of NK cells to other hematopoietic cells.