Sodium butyrate induces basophilic differentiation of HL-60 promyelocytic leukemia cells that have been previously passaged in alkaline medium. A factor present in Mo conditioned medium (Mo-CM) acts synergistically with sodium butyrate to promote basophilic maturation in a dose-dependent fashion. The induced HL-60 cells exhibit nuclei at various stages of maturity and cytoplasmic granules staining azurophilic with May-Grunwald-Giemsa and metachromatically with toluidine blue. The histamine content of induced HL-60 cells is 50 ng/10(6) cells with sodium butyrate alone or 190 ng/10(6) cells with butyrate in combination with Mo-CM. Induced cells release histamine in response to anti-IgE and have receptors for the Fc portion of human IgE. The basophilic cell-differentiating activity present in Mo-CM appears to be distinct from several other cytokines including recombinant human interleukin-1 alpha, interleukin-2, interferon-gamma, interferon-alpha, murine interleukin-3, erythroid-potentiating activity, and purified human granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor. This is the first demonstration of a cell line that is capable of differentiation along the basophil lineage and could provide a useful model for examining biochemical and molecular events associated with basophil differentiation.