Two types of T lymphocytes can be generated intrathymically, distinguishable by either TCR-gamma delta or -alpha beta surface expression. Regulation of the intrathymic divergence of these cells is unresolved, at least in part because thymically derived gamma delta cells have rarely been studied. We used quantitative Southern blotting together with PCR-based cloning/sequencing and restriction fragment length polymorphism to analyze TCR-alpha and -beta gene recombination in thymically derived gamma delta cells. We found that TCR-beta gene recombination is a frequent occurrence in thymic gamma delta cells. Furthermore, not only do complete (V-D-J) TCR-beta gene rearrangements occur in thymic gamma delta cells, but the frequency of in-frame rearrangements is greater than would be predicted based upon random occurrence. In contrast, we show that thymically derived gamma delta cells do not make detectable rearrangements of the TCR-alpha locus. These studies clearly demarcate a point for alpha beta vs gamma delta commitment in the thymus, after TCR-beta but before TCR-alpha gene recombination. Further, while our data support gamma delta lineage commitment as a consequence of successful TCR-gamma and -delta gene rearrangement, we do not find support for a competitive model of lineage commitment, since productive TCR-beta gene rearrangement does not necessarily relegate cells to the alpha beta lineage.