T lymphocytes are predisposed to recognition of foreign protein fragments bound to cell-surface molecules encoded by the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). There is now compelling evidence that this specificity is a consequence of a selection process operating on developing T lymphocytes in the thymus. As a result of this positive selection, thymocytes that express antigen receptors with a threshold affinity for self MHC-encoded glycoproteins preferentially emigrate from the thymus and seed peripheral lymphoid organs. The specificity for both foreign antigen and MHC molecules is imparted by the alpha and beta chains of the T-cell antigen receptor (TCR). Two other T-cell surface proteins, CD4 and CD8, which bind non-polymorphic regions of class II and class I MHC molecules respectively, are also involved in these recognition events and play an integral role in thymic selection. In order to elucidate the developmental pathways of class II MHC-restricted T cells in relation to these essential accessory molecules, we have produced TCR-transgenic mice expressing a receptor specific for a fragment of pigeon cytochrome c and the Ek (class II MHC) molecule. The transgenic TCR is expressed on virtually all T cells in mice expressing Ek. The thymuses of these mice contain an abnormally high percentage of mature CD4+CD8- cells. In addition, the peripheral T-cell population is almost exclusively CD4+, demonstrating that the MHC specificity of the TCR determines the phenotype of T cells during selection in the thymus.