Mice homozygous for the lpr gene spontaneously develop massive lymphoproliferation and an associated lupus-like autoimmune disease. In addition, the total lymphoid organs from these mice express high levels of mRNA for the c-myb proto-oncogene. Since enhanced c-myb mRNA is normally observed in immature thymic lymphocytes but not normal peripheral T cells, this may be indicative of the abnormal maturation state of lpr T lymphocytes. To determine whether the abnormal Lyt-2-, L3T4- (double negative) T lymphocytes in lpr mice express high c-myb, we purified this population by complement-mediated lysis with anti-L3T4 and Lyt-2 antibody from B6/lpr lymph nodes. We found that increased c-myb mRNA is expressed by this double-negative subset. To assess whether the high level of c-myb correlated with the aberrant undifferentiated state of these cells, we examined the effects of T cell differentiation inducers, phorbol ester and calcium ionophore, on c-myb expression. We found that c-myb levels were depressed after phorbol ester and calcium ionophore treatment. Concomitantly, transcriptional activation of the interleukin 2 receptor gene and progression of these cells through the cell cycle were observed. Thus, in B6/lpr double-negative T cells, the regulation of c-myb, interleukin 2 receptor, and cell proliferation may be interrelated. A combination of Northern hybridization and nuclear run-on transcription assays revealed two levels at which c-myb can be regulated in the double-negative T cell subset. The gene is transcriptionally regulated in untreated cells, but on induction with phorbol ester and calcium ionophore, the gene is negatively regulated via post-transcriptional mechanisms.