The most primitive hematopoietic stem cells capable of longterm reconstitution of the entire hematopoietic system following transplantation are characterized by their ability to exclude both Rhodamine 123 and Hoechst 33342 dyes (Rh/Ho(dull)), and are an appropriate target population for the determination of stem cell ultrastructure. We have used a fluorescence-activated cell sorter to enrich to near purity these rare, highly quiescent cells. Analysis of the in vitro growth characteristics of Rh/Ho(dull) cells demonstrated an obligatory requirement for multiple growth factors, with 62% of the sorted population having the capacity to form colonies in the presence of CSF-1 + IL-1alpha + IL-3 + SCF. The Rh/Ho(dull) cells were small, with profiles having a mean diameter of 4.6 microm. Ultrastructural examination showed numerous ribosomes and several mitochondria in the thin rim of cytoplasm surrounding the nucleus, with other cytoplasmic organelles revealed in serial sections. The cells were generally homogeneous in appearance apart from the nucleus, which had an irregular shape with a single deep indentation. The heterochromatin around the margin was distinctly more pronounced in about 50% of nuclei. The findings provide a basis for studying the structural changes that occur with progressive differentiation of early hematopoietic cells.