The characterization of genes involved in the generation of the immune repertoire is an active area of research in lower vertebrate taxa. The recombination activating genes (RAG) have been shown to be essential for V (D) J recombination of T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) and immunoglobulin (Ig) genes, leading to the generation of the primary repertoire. As RAG1 is critical to the differentiation of pre-B and-T cells, its expression within an associated primary lymphoid organ can serve as a developmental marker. To examine the ontogeny of lymphocytes in Oncorhynchus mykiss, we cloned RAG1 from trout and examined its tissue-and lymphocyte-specific expression. The polymerase chain reaction, coupled with degenerate oligonucleotide primers, was used to amplify a homologous probe [(633 base pairs) (bp)] from rainbow trout genomic DNA, which in turn was used to isolate a lambda genomic clone. Sequence analysis of this genomic clone confirmed the RAG1 nature of this gene (3888 bp) and revealed an internal intron of 666 bp. When compared with other previously reported RAG1 sequences, the predicted amino acid translation (1073 aa) displayed a minimum of 78% similarity for the complete sequence and 89% similarity in the conserved region (aa 417-1042). Using northern blot analysis, we found the expression of RAG1 to be limited to surface Ig-n lymphocytes within the thymus. This data forms the basis for a proposal that the thymus of teleost species plays an essential developmental role in lymphopoiesis and thus can be regarded as a primary lymphoid organ. © 1995, Springer-Verlag. All rights reserved.