BACKGROUND: Although the persistence of multilineage microchimerism in recipients of long-surviving organ transplants implies engraftment of migratory pluripotent donor stem cells, the ultimate localization in the recipient of these cells has not been determined in any species. METHODS: Progenitor cells were demonstrated in the bone marrow and nonparenchymal liver cells of naive rats and in Brown Norway (BN) recipients of Lewis (LEW) allografts by semiquantitative colony-forming unit in culture (CFU-C) assays. The LEW allografts of bone marrow cells (BMC) (2.5x10(8)), orthotopic livers, or heterotopic hearts (abdominal site) were transplanted under a 2-week course of daily tacrolimus, with additional single doses on days 20 and 27. Donor CFU-C colonies were distinguished from recipient colonies in the allografts and recipient bone marrow with a donor-specific MHC class II monoclonal antibody. The proportions of donor and recipient colonies were estimated from a standard curve created by LEW and BN bone marrow mixtures of known concentrations. RESULTS: After the BMC infusions, 5-10% of the CFU-C in the bone marrow of BN recipients were of the LEW phenotype at 14, 30, and 60 days after transplantation. At 100 days, however, donor CFU-C could no longer be found at this site. The pattern of LEW CFU-C in the bone marrow of BN liver recipients up to 60 days was similar to that in recipients of 2.5x10(8) BMC, although the donor colonies were only 1/20 to 1/200 as numerous. This was expected, because the progenitor cells in the passenger leukocytes of a single liver are equivalent to those in 1-5x10(6) BMC. Using a liquid CFU-C assay, donor progenitor cells were demonstrated among the nonparenchymal cells of liver allografts up to 100 days. In contrast, after heart transplantation, donor CFU-C could not be identified in the recipient bone marrow, even at 14 days. CONCLUSION: effective immunosuppression, allogeneic hematopoietic progenitors compete effectively with host cells for initial engraftment in the bone marrow of noncytoablated recipients, but disappear from this location between 60 and 100 days after transplantation, coincident with the shift of donor leukocyte chimerism from the lymphoid to the nonlymphoid compartment that we previously have observed in this model. It is possible that the syngeneic parenchymal environment of the liver allografts constitutes a privileged site for persistent progenitor donor cells.