Macrophage-colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF) regulates the survival, proliferation and differentiation of the mononuclear phagocyte lineage. Osteopetrotic (op/op) mice defective in producing functional M-CSF were used in order to investigate the role of M-CSF on the development of microglia and brain macrophages and the expression of scavenger receptor (SR). Adult op/op and littermate mice at 10-47 weeks of age were investigated by immunohistochemistry with a panel of monoclonal antibodies (F4/80, Mac-1, anti-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II and anti-SR), electron microscopy and reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Microglia were weakly immunolabeled with F4/80 and Mac-1 in op/op and littermate mice, but the number of microglia in op/op mice was reduced in the cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem compared with that of normal littermates. The numbers of Mac-1-positive microglia in op/op mice was 39% (pons) and 30% (cerebellar cortex) lower than that in normal littermates (P<0.05). In addition, the microglia cell processes in op/op mice were often shorter than those in control mice. In op/op and littermate mice, both MHC class II and SR were present in perivascular cells and macrophages of the leptomeninx and choroid plexus. Ultrastructurally, perivascular cells appeared to be immature, since their cytoplasm was narrow and contained few inclusion bodies compared with those of control mice. Reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction showed a weak expression for SR mRNA in the brains of op/op mice as well as littermate mice. These results indicate that microglia are partly dependent on M-CSF for their proliferation and differentiation and that M-CSF has no significant effect on the expression of SR in the physiological brain. The study also suggests that M-CSF affects the maturation of perivascular cells at the ultrastructural level.