To characterize the functional status of lpr T cells and determine whether activation is required for DN cell expansion, we performed in vivo labeling experiments in MRL-+/+, MRL-lpr, and p59fyn-/- MRL-lpr (Fyn-/-) mice. Multicolor FACS analysis of T cells from 8-wk-old mice receiving bromodeoxyuridine (BrdUrd) for 9 days showed that higher proportions of CD4+ and CD8+ lymph node cells were dividing (BrdUrd(high)) in lpr (15%) than in +/+ mice (3%), and the proportion of cycling cells was even higher in the DN (71%) and CD4+ B220+ (54%) lpr subsets. BrdUrd chase experiments documented that activation and division in most DN cells was initiated subsequent to their precursor CD8+ stage. Lymphadenopathy and other disease manifestations were greatly reduced in Fyn-/- lpr mice concomitant to decreased DN cells (from 77 to 20%). BrdUrd chase experiments showed that the division rate, signified by conversion of DN cells from BrdUrd(high) to BrdUrd(low), was severely reduced in Fyn-/- compared with conventional lpr mice, whereas division of all other T cell subsets (CD4+, CD8+, and CD4+ B220+) was equal in both types of mice. We conclude that 1) DN lpr T cells, rather than being end stage, retain the capacity to be activated and repeatedly divide before reaching an anergic or replicative senescence stage; 2) the CD3 zeta-chain-associated Fyn kinase is important to DN T cell signal transduction; 3) DN cells, as functional intermediates of the CD8+ subset, are highly dependent on Fas participation for apoptosis; and 4) DN cells contribute to the early development of the serologic and histologic features of the MRL-lpr lupus disease.