Hematopoietic cells present in the liver in early human fetal life were characterized by phenotypic analysis using a broad panel of monoclonal antibodies. Expression of very late antigen 4 and leukocyte function-associated antigen 3 cell adhesion receptors and 4F2 cell activation molecules was found in all fetal liver hematopoietic cells before acquisition of T cell-, B cell-, or myeloid-specific surface markers, and before the time of intrathymic colonization. Molecular studies showed that expression of the interleukin 2 receptor beta (IL-2R beta) also occurred in the embryonic liver at this early ontogenic stage. In contrast, no expression of IL-2R alpha or IL-2 transcripts was found in fetal liver cells, whereas transcription of the IL-4 gene was detected in a small fetal liver cell subset. Putative T cell precursors were identified among the hematopoietic fetal liver cells by the expression of genes encoding the gamma, delta, epsilon, and zeta invariant chains of the CD3-T cell receptor (TCR) complex. However, no transcription of the polymorphic alpha and beta TCR genes was detected. Functional in vitro assays further demonstrated that fetal liver hematopoietic cells from those early embryos were capable of proliferating in response to T cell growth factors, including IL-4 and IL-2. However, whereas IL-4-induced proliferation paralleled the appearance in vitro of CD45+CD7-CD4dull cells expressing the CD14 myeloid antigen, as well as of CD34+ primitive hematopoietic progenitors, differentiation into CD45+CD7+CD8+CD3- immature T cells was observed when using IL-2. Moreover, coculture with thymic epithelial cell monolayers provided additional evidence that early fetal liver hematopoietic cells may include very primitive T cell precursors, which were able to differentiate in vitro into TCR alpha/beta+ mature T cells. Therefore, our results indicate that, after triggering of the T cell-specific maturation program in primitive fetal liver hematopoietic progenitors, specific signals provided intrathymically by epithelial cells may fulfill the requirements to drive terminal differentiation of prethymically committed T cell precursors.