The purpose of thymocyte differentiation is to establish the T cell repertoire and eliminate nonfunctional and autoreactive T cells. In an analysis of potential regulators of this process, we have found that c-myc expression is down-regulated dramatically during early thymocyte differentiation and subsequently up-regulated along with TCR/CD3 in CD4+8+ cells. Transgenic E beta-myc mice that constitutively express c-myc in thymocytes have a larger proportion of thymocytes with high TCR/CD3 and low heat-stable antigen-1 expression than controls, and an increase in the number of transitional cells with a CD4+CD8low phenotype. Mature E beta-myc T cells respond less vigorously than controls to activation through their TCR/CD3 complex, as measured by proliferation and induction of the activation marker CD69. These results are consistent with a hypothesis in which activation of immature T cells through TCR/CD3 induces c-myc up-regulation and drives thymocytes through the initial stage of positive selection.