Programmed cell death plays an important role during thymocyte development, since a vast majority (97%) of mouse cortical thymocytes die in thymus, whereas only 3% of these cells are rescued from cell death and positively selected. Although it seems well established that thymocyte fate depends upon appropriate surface-expressed T cell receptor, little is known about the molecular mechanism(s) responsible for the massive thymocyte elimination that occurs in the thymus. We report here that Thy-1 is capable of triggering mouse thymocyte death in vitro through a bcl-2-resistant mechanism. We have previously shown that Thy-1 is involved in mouse thymocyte adhesion to thymic stroma through interaction with an epithelial cell ligand. To examine the Thy-1 signaling function in thymocytes, we have mimicked its interaction with stromal cells by culturing mouse thymocytes onto tissue culture plates coated with monoclonal antibodies (mAb) directed at distinct Thy-1 epitope regions. mAb recognizing determinants in a defined Thy-1 structural domain, but not others, were found to induce marked thymocyte apoptosis as evidenced by morphological and biochemical data. Use of a quantitative DNA dot blot assay indicated that Thy-1-mediated thymocyte apoptosis was not blocked by RNA or protein synthesis inhibitors, EGTA, or by cyclosporin A, and differed, therefore, from "activation-driven cell death". Moreover, Thy-1(+)-transfected, but not wild-type AKR1 (Thy-1-d) thymoma cells underwent apoptosis after ligation with apoptosis-inducing, Thy-1-specific mAb. In contrast to thymocytes, the latter event was inhibitable by RNA and protein synthesis inhibitors, an indication that thymocytes, but not thymoma cells, contain the molecular components necessary for Thy-1-driven apoptosis. We further showed that Thy-1-triggered thymocyte death is a developmentally regulated process operative in fetal thymocytes from day 17 of gestation, but not in peripheral T cells. Indeed, the target of apoptosis by anti-Thy-1 was found to reside mainly within the CD4+8+3- and CD4+8+3lo double positive immature thymocyte subsets. Finally, it is of major interest that Thy-1-mediated apoptosis, which was found to be readily detectable in thymocytes from bcl-2-transgenic mice, represents a thus far unique experimental system for studying bcl-2-resistant thymocyte death mechanism(s).