We analyzed the transcription and rearrangement of the T cell antigen receptor (Ti) genes Ti alpha and Ti beta in human B cell, T cell, and myeloid cell lines, as well as in purified tonsillar B and T cells. All four B cell lines examined, as well as one of two myeloid cell lines, expressed low levels of truncated Ti beta transcripts, as did freshly purified tonsillar B cells. Two of the B cell lines and one of the myeloid lines also expressed truncated Ti alpha transcripts, while tonsillar B cells did not. Sequence analysis of cDNA clones from a B cell line demonstrated that these truncated Ti alpha and Ti beta transcripts were composed of unrearranged J and C gene segments. Comparison of cDNA clones from T and B cells suggests that D alpha genes or N regions contribute to the formation of Ti alpha transcripts in T cells but not in B cells. None of the B cell or myeloid cell lines in this study showed evidence of Ti beta gene rearrangements by Southern blotting. Our data, and other studies of gene rearrangements in human tumors, demonstrate that the level of Ti beta transcriptional activity and the frequency of Ti beta gene rearrangements are correlated in all cell types examined. Thus, our data support the accessibility model of antigen receptor gene rearrangement, whereby the susceptibility of gene segments to recombination enzymes is correlated with their transcriptional activity.