The zeta-family dimers (zeta, eta, and gamma) are a group of structurally and functionally related proteins that are expressed in developing thymocytes and function as signal transducing subunits of the T cell antigen receptor (TCR) and certain Ig Fc receptors. Zeta, eta, and gamma each contain one or more copies of a conserved tyrosine-based activation motif (TAM) that is known to be required for signal transduction. To examine the developmental importance of multiple or individual TAM elements we generated transgenic mice that express: (a) full-length (FL) zeta-chain (3 TAMs); (b) eta-chain, a naturally occurring variant of zeta that is derived from alternative splicing (2 TAMs); or (c) truncated zeta-chain (CT108; 1 TAM), under the control of the human CD2 promoter and regulatory elements. Unexpectedly, we found that overexpression of the FL zeta chain caused premature termination of RAG-1 and RAG-2 expression, prevented productive rearrangement of the TCR-alpha and TCR-beta genes and blocked entry of thymocytes into the CD4/CD8 developmental pathway. In contrast, we found that overexpression of eta or CT108 had no effect on normal thymocyte maturation. These results suggest that an early signaling pathway exists in precursor TCR- thymocytes that can regulate RAG-1 and RAG-2 expression and is differentially responsive to individual members of the zeta-family dimers.