CD34 is a marker for pluripotent stem cells also present on lineage- committed hematopoietic progenitors from bone marrow and a subpopulation of immature thymocytes. To characterize these early immature thymocytes, we have studied 24 pediatric thymus samples for CD34/7 expression. Three subpopulations could be defined from these T- cell receptor (TcR-) immature thymocytes: CD34+7++ (12.0 +/- 5.8), CD34- 7++ (12.6 +/- 8.6), and CD34-7+ (71.5 +/- 17.0%). CD7++ represents upregulation of this antigen and is expressed by cells of a blast-like morphology. Three-color flow cytometric analysis of these three subsets suggests the following ordered differentiation sequence: CD34+7++1-4-8- 45RA+-->CD34+7++1+ 4+8-45RA+/- -->CD34-7++1+4+8-+45RO+-->CD34- 7+1++4+8+45RO+. Early immature thymocyte cell division is essential in the thymus to generate a large number of precursors before the initiation of the selection process. We observed that both CD2 as well CD28 activation pathways were inefficient to serve as costimulant with phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol 13-acetate or interleukin-2 (IL-2) to induce the proliferation of the three CD34/7 subsets isolated by cell sorting. However, whereas IL-1, IL-2, IL-3, IL-4, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, and granulocyte-macrophage colony- stimulating factor were ineffective, IL-7 was a potent cytokine, alone or in synergy with stem cell factor (SCF) to induce immature thymocyte proliferation. The proliferation induced by IL-7 or IL-7 + SCF is restricted to the CD34+ cells and, after 4 or 8 days of culture with IL- 7, some CD34+7++ acquire the expression of CD4 and/or CD8, but remain CD3/TcR-. We also tested the myeloid differentiation capacity of these CD34 immature thymocytes. Using two different approaches, myeloid colony formation in methylcellulose and limiting dilution analysis in the presence of myeloid growth factors, we were unable to detect myeloid differentiation capacity from CD34+ early thymocytes, whereas CD34+7+ from bone marrow contained about 10% of the clonogenic cells present in the CD34+7- fraction. Together, these data support the concept that thymic CD34+7++ represents the earliest thymic subset of fully committed T-lineage cells, capable of proliferating specifically to IL-7.