Previous work has demonstrated that intergenic V(D)J rearrangement, a process referred to as trans-rearrangement, occurs at an unexpectedly high frequency. These rearrangements generate novel V(D)J combinations which could conceivably have some role in the normal immune system, and since they probably arise through chromosomal rearrangements akin to those associated with lymphoid neoplasia, they may also serve as a model for investigating recombinational events which underlie oncogenesis. In view of the existence of a mechanism that permits relatively frequent intergenic trans-rearrangements, it seems reasonable that interallelic trans-rearrangements involving segments belonging to each of the two alleles of a single antigen receptor gene might also occur. To determine the frequency of such rearrangements, we examined thymocytes of F1 progeny of a cross between SWR mice, which have a deletion spanning 10 of the known V beta segments, and NZW mice, which have a deletion involving all J beta 2 segments. Rearranged TCR-beta genes containing V beta segments from the NZW chromosome and J beta segments from the SWR chromosome were amplified from the DNA of F1 thymocytes with the polymerase chain reaction. Using this approach, we found that such rearrangements are relatively uncommon, being present in about 1 in 10(5) thymocytes, a frequency lower than that of V gamma/J beta intergenic trans-rearrangements. The ratio of conventional cis-rearrangement to interallelic trans-rearrangement for any particular V beta segment appears to be about 10(4):1. The structure of the junctions in all trans-rearrangements analyzed closely resembles conventional cis-rearrangements, indicating involvement of V(D)J recombinase in the ultimate joining event. However, in contrast to cis-rearrangements, a strong bias for inclusion of D beta 1 segments over D beta 2 segments was noted, suggesting that interallelic trans-rearrangement may occur preferentially during attempted D-J joining. J beta 2 segment usage in trans-rearrangements also appeared to differ from that expected from previously studied cis-rearrangements. The results have implications with respect to the events and timing of conventional cis-rearrangement during thymocyte differentiation, and the prevalence of various types of trans-rearrangements.