Subpopulations of thymocytes known to represent early stages of T cell development were isolated from the adult mouse thymus, and their ability to differentiate during short periods of culture was assessed by their acquisition of surface CD4 and CD8. Virtually all cells of the most mature of the CD4-CD8- thymocyte subpopulations (other surface markers CD3- HSA++ IL-2R-Pgp-1-) and of the immature CD4-CD8+ thymocyte subpopulation (other surface markers also CD3- HSA++ IL-2R- Pgp-1-) became CD4+CD8+ in less than 1 day of culture without added stimuli or growth factors. This suggested they had already received signals initiating CD4 and CD8 acquisition. However, stimulation of these precursor cells with phorbyl ester and ionomycin prevented this acquisition of CD4 and CD8. No distinct CD4-CD8+ intermediate was detected as the CD4-CD8- cells became CD4+CD8+ in the non-stimulated cultures, thus questioning the assumption that these three groups of cells are sequential steps in one lineage. In contrast to this pre-programmed acquisition of CD4 and CD8, the less mature CD4-CD8- IL-2R+ subpopulation did not progress to the CD4+CD8+ stage in culture, although it is able to develop further on intrathymic transfer. It is likely that this subpopulation represents a control point requiring specific differentiation signals for further development.