T cell antigen receptors (TCR) are composed of an antigen-recognizing unit, the TCRalpha beta heterodimer, and a signal transduction ensemble, the CD3 complex. Whereas mammals possess three CD3 dimers (delta epsilon, gamma epsilon, and zeta2), birds and amphibians have only two (delta/gamma-epsilon and zeta2). To understand evolutionary changes in TCR/CD3 assembly,a phylogenetic approach was employed to dissect the interaction of TCRalpha beta heterodimers with the CD3 components. While sheep and mouse TCRalpha and TCRbeta chains could replace the corresponding human chains in mutant human T cells to restore surface TCR/CD3 expression and function, chicken TCRalpha, TCRbeta and CD3delta/gamma chains were unable to replace the corresponding human chains in forming a chimeric TCR/CD3 complex. The inability of chicken TCR/CD3 components to replace the human molecules in T cells was found to result from the lack of interaction between chicken TCRalpha beta heterodimers and the human CD3 complex. In contrast, if no CD3 molecules are present (non-T cells), TCRalpha -TCRbeta chain pairing can take place in an apparently non-controlled way. Thus, the TCR-CD3 interactions have changed with the evolutionary divergence of two mammalian CD3gamma and CD3delta genes from a single prototypic chicken delta/gamma gene. Our data suggest that the structures in mammalian TCR.C regions, which distinguish between CD3delta and CD3gamma chains, have evolved with the appearance of two separate CD3delta and CD3gamma functions.