Thymocytes from C57BL/6 mice were highly purified to obtain the CD 4-, CD 8- subpopulation which constitutes only 5% of all thymocytes. Substantial proliferation was induced in vitro with either IL-1 + IL-2 or with IL-4 in the presence of PMA. IL-1 and IL-2 synergized in inducing proliferation of these purified CD 4-, CD 8- thymocytes whereas neither synergized with IL-4. In order to determine whether stimulation with IL-1 + IL-2 acted via IL-4 or vice versa, cultures were treated reciprocally with affinity-purified anti-IL-2 or anti-IL-4 antibodies. Cultures with IL-4 were inhibited by anti-IL-4 but were unaffected by anti-IL-2. The CD 4-, CD 8- thymocytes cultured with IL-1 + IL-2 + anti-IL-2 were inhibited to baseline IL-1 stimulation. At low concentrations of IL-1 (1 U/ml) and IL-2 (100 U/ml), anti-IL-4 had no effect, whereas at higher levels of IL-1 (2 U/ml IL-1), and 100 or 200 U/ml IL-2, anti-IL-4 significantly reduced DNA synthesis. This result suggests that at higher concentrations the combination of IL-1 + IL-2 can induce cells to produce IL-4 which then contributes to overall proliferation. When CD 4-, CD 8- thymocytes were cultured with the low doses of IL-1 + IL-2 for 72 h, 62% expressed cell surface T3 complex (vs 11% at initiation) and 27% were F23.1+ (vs 5% at initiation). In contrast, culture with IL-4 led to no increase in numbers of T3+ cells and none were F23.1+; however there was coexpression of Thy1 and 6B2 on 20% of cells at the end of culture (vs 4% at initiation). Thus, IL-1 + IL-2 causes expansion of a CD 4-, CD 8- thymocyte population expressing the α, β-T cell receptor, whereas IL-4 induces cells to express a phenotype present in small numbers in the periphery of normal mice and in larger numbers in mice bearing the lpr gene.