GATA-3 is a zinc-finger transcription factor that is essential for both early T cell development and Th2 cell differentiation. To quantify GATA-3 expression during T cell development in vivo in the mouse, the GATA-3 gene was targeted by insertion of a lacZ reporter by homologous recombination in embryonic stem (ES) cells. Although we could detect GATA-3+ cells throughout T cell development in the thymus, the proportions of GATA-3+ cells varied considerably between the distinct differentiation stages. The two periods of TCR alpha and beta gene recombination, which occur in quiescent or slowly dividing cells, were associated with low proportions of GATA-3+ cells. Conversely, the stage of rapidly proliferating cells, which insulates these two waves of TCR rearrangement, was characterized by a large proportion of GATA-3+ cells. In addition, we generated chimeric mice by injection of GATA-3-deficient, lacZ-expressing ES cells into wild-type blastocysts. In this in vivo competition analysis, no contribution of GATA-3-deficient cells to the T cell lineage was detected, not even in the earliest CD44+CD25- double-negative (CD4-CD8-) cell stage in the thymus. These results parallel data implicating other GATA family members as key regulators of proliferation and survival of early hematopoietic cells. We therefore propose that GATA-3 is required for the expansion of T cell progenitors, and for the control of subsequent proliferation steps, which alternate periods of TCR recombination in the thymus.