The requirements for inducing positive selection of T cells were examined in thymus reaggregation cultures, a system in which dispersed populations of immature CD4+8+ cells and purified thymic epithelial cells (TEC) are reaggregated in tissue culture. Studies with TEC from mice selectively lacking major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I (I-II+), class II (I+II-), or both class I and II (I-II-) molecules showed that class II expression was essential for the differentiation of CD4+8+ cells into CD4+8- cells. Unexpectedly, the generation of TCRhi CD4-8+ cells from CD4+8+ cells was apparent with I-II+ TEC but not with I-II- TEC, perhaps reflecting cross-reactive specificity of CD4-8+ cells for class II molecules. Significantly, the failure of I-II- TEC to generate TCRhi CD4+8- or CD4-8+ cells could not be overcome by adding MHC+ bone marrow-derived cells. These findings, together with experiments on purified subsets of TEC, suggest that positive selection in thymus reaggregation cultures is an exclusive property of cortical TEC.