The frequency and capacity for clonal expansion of several murine thymocyte subpopulations responsive to various IL (fetal day 15, and adult CD4-8-, CD4+8- and CD4-8+) were investigated using a single-cell limiting-dilution cell culture system without filler cells. This assay requires the presence of PMA and ionomycin. The main conclusions of these studies are the following: 1) IL-4 is a better growth factor than IL-2 for immature thymocytes (fetal day 15 or adult CD4-8-). 2) IL-2 is a better growth factor than IL-4 for mature phenotype thymocytes (CD4+8- and CD4-8+). 3) IL-4 is a relatively poor growth factor for adult CD4-CD8- thymocytes and CD4+CD8- thymocytes, while it induced strong responses in fetal day 15 and CD4-8+ thymocytes. 4) IL-6 enhanced the response of CD4+8- thymocytes to either IL-2 or IL-4. 5) Cortisone-resistant thymocytes grown initially with IL-4 and then switched to IL-2 showed a significant decrease in cloning efficiency. No inhibitory effect was observed when cells were cultured first with IL-2 and then switched to IL-4. 6) Finally, supernatant from Con-A stimulated rat spleen cells induced maximal growth of all adult thymocyte populations tested, suggesting that unidentified thymocyte growth factor(s) remain to be characterized. These results indicate that the maturational stage of thymocytes determines their requirements for activation and proliferation.