Structural models for the TCR alpha/beta predict that the CDR1, CDR2, and CDR3 loops of both the alpha- and beta-chains contribute to specific interactions with the Ag/MHC complex. The CDR3 loops are constructed by joining events involving the V-(D)-J segments, and thus may vary in both sequence and length. We have developed a polymerase chain reaction assay to assess the length variation of the CDR3 loop in TCR derived from seven V beta segment families (V beta 2, V beta 3, V beta 4, V beta 9, V beta 14, V beta 16, and V beta 17). Peripheral blood T cells from 10 normal adults as well as five cord blood samples were studied. CD4+ and CD8+ T cells were analyzed separately. We observed extreme predominance of particular CDR3 lengths in half of the normal adults. These TCR were shown to be clonal by direct sequence analysis. This clonal dominance was found in the CD8+, CD45RO+ T cell population, and was observed in various V segment families. These patterns of TCR clonality were persistent over many months of observation in some individuals. In one subject, the new appearance of a predominant clone was associated with a booster vaccination for hepatitis B. These studies reveal a surprising degree of oligoclonality in the CD8+ cells of normal subjects which may be due to both environmental and genetic factors; the functional significance of persistent clonal dominance in the CD8 compartment remains to be determined.