While studying the T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire of normal individuals, we found that more than 20% of adults have low levels of circulating V beta 3.1+ T cells in both CD4 and CD8 populations. A similar frequency was found in fetal cord blood samples, suggesting that in most cases, the V beta 3.1low phenotype is inherited. In support of this conclusion, children expressing low levels were only found in families where one of the parents expressed this phenotype. In two large families, genetic studies showed that low expression was a recessive trait and dependent on inheritance of particular TCR VB gene complexes. Family members with the low phenotype, however, expressed VB3.1 genes with normal sequences and expressed normal levels of receptor per cell. Results from these families suggest that up to 50% of normal individuals may carry a VB3.1 allele that is defective in its ability to rearrange effectively. In another large family, low expression in one individual was shown not to be determined by genes within the TCR VB gene or major histocompatibility complexes, suggesting a different mechanism for low V beta 3.1+ T cells. Overall, our results describe novel mechanisms that result in low levels of V beta 3.1+ T cells in a relatively large subset of the normal human population.