We examined the possible role of CD4 molecules during in vivo and in vitro fetal thymic development. Our results show that fetal thymi treated with intact anti-CD4 mAbs fail to generate CD4 single-positive T cells, while the generation of the other phenotypes remains unchanged. Most importantly, the use of F(ab')2 and Fab anti-CD4 mAb gave identical results, i.e., failure to generate CD4+/CD8- T cells, with no effect on the generation of CD4+/CD8+ T cells. Since F(ab')2 and Fab anti-CD4 fail to deplete CD4+/CD8- in adult mice, these results strongly argue that the absence of CD4+/CD8- T cells is not due to depletion, but rather, is caused by a lack of positive selection, attributable to an obstructed CD4-MHC class II interaction. Furthermore, we also observed an increase in TCR/CD3 expression after anti-CD4 (divalent or monovalent) mAb treatment. The TCR/CD3 upregulation occurs in the double-positive population, and may result from CD4 signaling after mAb engagement, or may be a consequence of the blocked CD4-class II interactions. One proposed model argues that the CD3 upregulation occurs in an effort to compensate for the reduction in avidity or signaling that is normally provided by the interaction of the CD4 accessory molecule and its ligand. As a whole, our findings advocate that CD4 molecules play a decisive role in the differentiation of thymocytes.