Analysis of MM14 mouse myoblasts demonstrates that terminal differentiation is repressed by pure preparations of both acidic and basic fibroblast growth factor (FGF). Basic FGF is approximately 30-fold more potent than acidic FGF and it exhibits half maximal activity in clonal assays at 0.03 ng/ml (2 pM). FGF repression occurs only during the G1 phase of the cell cycle by a mechanism that appears to be independent of ongoing cell proliferation. When exponentially growing myoblasts are deprived of FGF, cells become postmitotic within 2-3 h, express muscle-specific proteins within 6-7 h, and commence fusion within 12-14 h. Although expression of these three terminal differentiation phenotypes occurs at different times, all are initiated by a single regulatory "commitment" event in G1. The entire population commits to terminal differentiation within 12.5 h of FGF removal as all cells complete the cell cycle and move into G1. Differentiation does not require a new round of DNA synthesis. Comparison of MM14 behavior with other myoblast types suggests a general model for skeletal muscle development in which specific growth factors serve the dual role of stimulating myoblast proliferation and directly repressing terminal differentiation.