We have investigated the ability of a heterogeneous thymic stromal cell (HTSC) culture system to promote in vitro differentiation of CD3-4-8- thymocytes. Culture of purified murine CD3-4-8- thymocytes on HTSC for 1 d resulted in the appearance of CD4+8+ cells, which did not occur when the sorted cells were maintained in medium alone. It is remarkable that when the culture period was extended to 2 d, CD3-4-8- progenitors differentiated further to CD4+8- and CD4-8+ cells, which also expressed high levels of TCR-CD3. This rapid differentiation on stroma in vitro appears to outpace parallel development in vivo. The differentiation potential of a subset of CD3-4-8- thymocytes that express high levels of a marker of normal and neoplastic thymic progenitors, the 1C11 antigen, was examined next. 1C11hiCD3-4-8- cells also gave rise to CD4-8+ and CD4+8+ populations after 1 d of culture on HTSC. Extending the culture period to 2 d resulted in a significant percentage of CD3-expressing cells that were CD4+8+, CD4+8- and CD4-8+ cells. These results suggest that in the in vitro HTSC culture system, various subsets of immature thymocytes can differentiate into all the mature phenotypes of cells normally found in the adult mouse thymus. This may provide a novel and rapid assay for thymic progenitors.