T cell development is characterized by the induction of apoptosis in most immature thymocytes and the rescue from apoptosis of a small proportion of cells by the process of positive selection.Up-regulation of the anti-apoptotic molecule Bcl-2 is associated with thymocytes undergoing positive selection and a bcl-2 transgene promotes the generation of mature T cells. In contrast,mice transgenic for the pro-apoptotic molecule Bax show impaired T cell maturation. We have used fetal thymic organ culture to determine the action of Bcl-2 and Bax on positive selection of thymocytes. Our data show that Bcl-2 and Bax do not alter the number of thymocytes positively selected by a defined peptide ligand. This implies that Bcl-2 and Bax alter the production of mature T cells in vivo by influencing thymocyte viability rather than by direct action on positive selection. It also presents a solution to the 'chicken-and-egg' scenario relating to Bcl-2 up-regulation and positive selection. The data suggest that the up-regulation of Bcl-2 associated with T cell maturation is a consequence of positive selection rather than a cause of it.