The thymus is a site of active T-lymphoid cell proliferation and DNA synthesis. In this study, the capacity of human thymocytes for nucleoside transport was assessed both by cytosine arabinoside influx and by equilibrium binding of nitrobenzylmercaptopurine riboside (NBMPR), a specific ligand for the equilibrative nucleoside transporter of leukocytes. The proportion of freshly isolated thymocytes synthesizing DNA was 8.6% +/- 2.1% (n = 12) by 3H-thymidine labeling index and 7.8% +/- 2.9% (n = 4) S-phase cells by flow cytometric analysis of DNA content. In comparison, both methods gave proliferation S-phase values less than 1% for peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs). Thymocytes expressed a high density of specific NBMPR binding sites (26,068 +/- 8,776 sites per cell, n = 12) as compared with PBLs (1,123 +/- 553 sites per cell, n = 8). The initial influx of cytosine arabinoside into thymocytes was 14-fold greater than into PBLs, and in both cell types the influx of nucleoside was totally inhibited by 0.5 mumol/L NBMPR, which is known to inhibit the major equilibrative nucleoside transporter in white blood cells. Depletion of mature CD3+ cells from the thymocyte preparation by anti-CD3 antibody left a residual population with both increased labeling index and up to twofold greater density of NBMPR binding sites. When PBLs were cultured for 48 hours with the T-cell mitogen phytohemagglutinin, a 40-fold increase in labeling index was observed, together with a 30-fold increase in the density of specific NBMPR binding sites. Thus, fresh thymocytes from human thymus are actively proliferating and express high densities of a functional nucleoside transporter. The more immature cells in the thymocyte population which are proliferating more actively have a greater density of nucleoside transporters than the whole population. In contrast, mitotically inactive PBLs-have few nucleoside transporters, but after mitogenic stimulation PBLs express large numbers of this transmembrane molecule.