In situ hybridization was used to investigate the expression of T cell receptor (TCR) alpha, beta, and gamma mRNAs in developing fetal and adult precursor thymocytes. gamma transcription was observed at the earliest time tested (day 12), followed by beta 12 h later, and TCR alpha on day 16. The early beta transcripts appeared to be from unrearranged or incompletely rearranged (D-J-C) beta loci. V beta region transcription was first detectable on day 14 and transcription of different V beta genes was induced at different times. These results delineate a schedule sequence of TCR gene activation, which begins within 1 d after entry of stem cells into the fetal thymus.