We have studied the phenotypic characteristics and growth properties of murine T lymphoma cell lines derived from primary x-ray-induced thymic lymphomas at the earliest stage at which they can be detected, and well before spreading to other organs has occurred. These cell lines serve as model systems for the earliest events in T cell lymphoma induction, before tumor cell progression and spreading to other organs. We find that primary x-ray-induced T cell lymphoma lines have phenotypic characteristics of thymic pre-T cells and show no proliferative response to any of the IL tested nor to other hematopoietic growth factors. However, they do proliferate in response to insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) and to a small autocrine peptide distinct from IGF-I, which we term lymphoma growth factor. One of the earliest lesions in T cell lymphoma induction may therefore be an inhibition of differentiation at one of several specific points. In its early stages, T lymphoma cell growth may be restricted to an environment where local concentrations of specific growth factors such as IGF-I or lymphoma growth factor are sufficiently high.