CD7+CD3- cells purified (greater than 99.99%) by FACS from the peripheral blood of healthy adults include precursors for mature T cells that have the capacity to differentiate into TCR-1+ or TCR-2+ CD3+ cells. Extrathymic differentiation was demonstrable from all eight healthy donors in the presence of a high concentration of IL-2, mitogenic levels of PHA, and irradiated blood mononuclear feeder cells, after a lag of approximately 40 d in vitro. The extrathymic T (ET) cells were predominantly TCR-1+, although TCR-2+ cells were also derived. ET TCR-1+ cells were CD4-CD8-, CD4-CD8DIM+, and CD4+CD8-, and were distinguished from natural T TCR-2+ cells by a variety of cell surface markers. The ET cells had phenotypes generally displayed by normal mature T cells, although the CD5DIM+ on ET cells was more typical of thymocytes. Acquisition of CD3 on purified CD7+CD3- cells was not due to antigenic modulation or growth of contaminants, and ET cells could be demonstrated at the clonal level. Studies in athymic mice and bone marrow recipients support the view that extrathymic maturation does occur in vivo. Whether the CD7+CD3- cell population was unexposed to the thymus, or exposed but not processed, is unknown. In any case, unusual or "forbidden" autoreactive specificities are predicted since ET cells differentiate without thymic selection of the TCR.