Previous studies have indicated that the human thymus is composed of several discrete compartments. Cortical thymocytes are reactive with the monoclonal antibody anti-T6, whereas most medullary cells, unreactive with anti-T6, stain brightly with anti-T3, which defines mature T cell populations. Only a minor thymocyte population lacks both T3 and T6 but expresses T11 antigens. Within the thymus, several proliferating lymphoblasts are present. In addition a distinct subset shows the capacity to proliferate in response to mitogens. By continuous Percoll density gradient centrifugation, we have obtained a cell fraction comprising the vast majority of cells able to proliferate spontaneously or after PHA stimulation. By a panning procedure performed with anti-T3 and anti-T6 antibodies, three phenotypically distinct thymocyte subsets were separated from this fraction, and their functional capabilities were tested. The spontaneous proliferating activity was found to be mainly attributable to thymocytes unable to respond to mitogen, expressing the cortical T6 marker and lacking receptors for IL 2. T3-positive cells are able to respond to mitogen. However, these thymocytes are incapable of producing the adequate amount of IL 2 required to fully saturate their intrinsic proliferative capability. Surprisingly, the phenotypically least mature intrathymic T lymphocytes (T3 and T6 negative) respond to phytomitogen, at least in part, in an interleukin-dependent manner. It is noteworthy that a large proportion of these T3- and T6-negative thymocytes express IL 2 receptors and class II MHC antigens without in vitro activation. These novel findings have potential implications in the context of current models of differentiation pathways within the human thymus.

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