During T cell development in the thymus, T cell receptor (TCR) alpha, beta, gamma, and delta genes are rearranged and expressed. TCR rearrangement strictly depends upon the coordinate activity of two recombinase activating genes, Rag-1 and Rag-2. In this study we have followed the expression of these genes at different stages of intrathymic development. The results indicate that there are two periods of high Rag-1 and Rag-2 mRNA expression. The first wave peaks early at the CD25+CD4-CD8-CD3- stage of development and coincides with the initial appearance of transcripts derived from fully rearranged TCR beta, gamma, and delta genes, whereas the second wave occurs later at the CD4+CD8+ stage coincident with full-length TCR alpha mRNA expression. Active downregulation of Rag-1 and Rag-2 mRNA expression appears to occur in vivo between the two peaks of recombinase activity. This phenomenon can be mimicked in vitro in response to artificial stimuli such as phorbol myristate acetate and calcium ionophore. Collectively our data suggest that recombinase expression is actively regulated during early thymus development independently of cell surface expression of a mature heterodimeric TCR protein complex.

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