Recent results have indicated that positive and negative repertoire selection act on the major population of CD4,8 double-positive (DP) thymocytes that express 5-10-fold less T cell receptor (TCR) than mature T cells (i.e., they are TCRlow). Since DP cells obtained ex vivo are heterogeneous with regard to their stage within thymic selection, a homogeneous population of virgin DP cells suitable for selection studies was generated in vitro from their immediate precursors, the CD8 single-positive (SP) immature blast cells. To mimic TCR-mediated selection signals, these virgin DP cells were then cultured for another 2 d in the presence of immobilized anti-TCR monoclonal antibodies with or without interleukin 2 (IL-2). Daily monitoring of recovery and phenotype showed that without TCR stimulation, the cells remained DP and became small, TCRlow cells that were lost with a half-life of 1 d, regardless of the presence of IL-2. TCR stimulation resulted in rapid downregulation of CD4 and CD8, maintenance of a larger cell size, and induction of the CD53 antigen that marks mature and CD4,8 double-negative rat thymocytes. In the absence of IL-2, viability decreased as rapidly as without TCR stimulation. Addition of IL-2 rescued TCR-stimulated virgin DP cells and prevented CD8 downregulation, so that 50-80% of input DP cells were recovered after 2 d as CD4-8+53+ cells. After release from modulation, these in vitro generated CD8 SP cells quantitatively upregulated the TCR to the TCRhigh phenotype and were readily induced to proliferate and exhibit cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activity in a polyclonal readout. Evidence is presented implicating an IL-2 receptor (IL-2R) not containing the p55 chain (i.e., most likely the p70 intermediate affinity IL-2R) in the TCR plus IL-2-driven in vitro differentiation of virgin DP cells towards the mature CD8 SP phenotype.