Nuclear receptors are critical regulators of many physiological processes and have been shown to be involved in a variety of disease processes, including malignant neoplasms. Our laboratory is investigating the function of the retinoid-related orphan receptor γ (RORγ) and its possible role in disease. Studies of mice deficient in the expression of RORγ demonstrated that this receptor plays a crucial role in the regulation of thymopoiesis and lymph node organogenesis. In this study, we show that changes in homeostasis in the thymus of RORγ-/- mice are associated with a high incidence of T-cell lymphomas. Over 50% of the deficient mice of mixed genetic background die within the first 4 months as a result of thymic lymphomas. A high incidence of lymphomas was also observed in RORγ-/- 129/SvEv mice. The lymphoblastic cells metastasized frequently to spleen and liver. No other tumor types were detected in any of RORγ-/- mice that died during the course of the experiment, and none of the heterozygous mice developed thymic lymphomas. Lymphoma formation was associated with increased cellular proliferation and an increase in the number of apoptotic cells. When placed in culture, the RORγ-/- lymphoblastic cells underwent accelerated "spontaneous" apoptosis at a rate similar to that of RORγ-/- thymocytes. Upon prolonged culture, several lymphoblastic cell lines could be established. Analysis of the immunophenotype of the lymphoblastic cells showed that the CD4 and CD8 subpopulations varied substantially among different lymphomas. The established cell lines consisted mostly of CD44-CD25+CD4-CD8- cells. Our studies indicate that loss of RORγ disturbs homeostasis in the thymus by enhancing apoptosis and cellular proliferation. The latter may enhance the probability of individual cells to acquire genetic alterations that make them escape negative selection and normal differentiation programs and as a consequence lead to increased susceptibility to the development of T-cell lymphoma.