Previous studies of the human T cell receptor delta genes identified five commonly used V delta segments distinct from any of the known V alpha genes. To define better the relationship between the T cell receptor delta and alpha repertoires we amplified cDNA obtained by polyclonally activated lymphocytes with a common 3' antisense C alpha-specific primer and with five different 5' sense V delta family-specific primers. Amplified products were detected in staphylococcal enterotoxin C2, staphylococcal enterotoxin E, phytohemagglutinin, concanavalin A, anti-CD3 and anti-V beta 8-activated cells, although each cell population expressed a selective pattern of V delta genes. Sequence analysis revealed that each of the known V delta genes can productively rearrange to J alpha segments to produce functional V delta-J alpha-C alpha transcripts. These results argue strongly against the notion that the human V delta and V alpha repertoires are distinct. They further suggest that the restricted delta repertoire observed in many gamma/delta clones results from selection rather than from controlled rearrangements at the T cell receptor alpha/delta locus.