Precursor CD4-CD8- (DN) thymocytes rearrange their TCR-beta genes, and only those which succeed in beta-selection subsequently expand and differentiate into immature CD4+CD8+ (DP) thymocytes. The cell subsets corresponding to the successive steps of this transition can be defined in terms of CD44 and CD25 expression. We partially synchronized the differentiation process by eliminating cycling cells with the anti-mitotic agent demecolcine. Using in vivo pulse labeling with bromodeoxyuridine, we determined the order of entry into DNA synthesis of the different DN and transitory (CD4-/lo CD8+) cell subsets. Two independent proliferation phases were identified. The first cells to enter the cell cycle were CD44-CD25lo, and CD4/CD8/TCR-/BrdU four-color staining showed that they all expressed a low density of the TCR-beta chain, an element of the pre-TCR (the TCR-alpha locus is still in germ-line configuration at this stage). Cycling of CD44+CD25+ cells was detected later, and no starting point was observed at the CD44-CD25hi stage. CD8 expression was immediately detectable in cycling cells, but they took 24 h to reach the DP stage. The study of TCR-Calpha-deficient mice showed that beta gene rearrangement occurred once proliferation had ceased at the DP stage, and that it had no influence on the DN-DP transition. These data show that precursor thymocytes undergo two independent waves of expansion, and that the second wave is restricted to cells capable of pre-TCR expression.