Secondary cultures of basal urothelial cells isolated from patients with stress incontinence (7 patients), neurogenic bladder (2 patients), interstitial cystitis (IC) (27 patients), bladder rupture (1 patient) and bacterial cystitis (3 patients) grew under growth restricting conditions. All groups displayed reproducible colony size distribution, reflecting the proliferative potential distribution in the population of progenitor cells seeded. The percentage of large colonies (>6 cells/colony), progeny of basal cells with high proliferative potential, was low in cultures from control patients with stress incontinence, neurogenic bladder or bladder rupture. Exposure of cultures from control patients with stress incontinence to lipoteichoic acid from Streptococcus faecalis, in vitro, increased the percentage of large colonies to levels statistically indistinguishable from those in untreated IC cultures. This supported the possibility that exposure of progenitors of urothelial cells to infection in vivo may cause the persistent increase in the percentage of large colonies in 80% of the IC patients tested. Given these findings, it was not surprising that the percentage of large colonies was also high in cultures from patients with acute bacterial cystitis. In conclusion, the present findings support the theoretical model for the etiology of IC we proposed based on our studies in normal urothelial cells (Elgavish et al., Journal of Cellular Physiology 169: 42-51, 52-65, 66-77, 1996): (1) The proliferative ability of a subpopulation of progenitors of urothelial cells is increased in IC; and (2) This change may be the result of recurrent exposure of progenitors of urothelial cells to injury due, possibly but not exclusively, to infection and chronic inflammation. We propose to use this change as a diagnostic tool for IC.