A continuous but low input of stem cells or 'prothymocytes' is necessary to maintain T-cell development in the adult thymus, but the colonizing cell has not been characterized. Precursors of T cells have been found in the minor CD4-8- population of thymocytes, but even the earliest cells of this population already have partially rearranged T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) genes. We now demonstrate that the thymus contains a minute population of lymphoid cells similar in some but not all respects to bone marrow-derived haemopoietic stem cells. This population has TCR genes in a germline state. It gives a slow but extensive reconstitution of both alpha beta and gamma delta lineages on transfer into an irradiated thymus, with kinetics indicating that it includes the earliest intrathymic precursor cells so far isolated. Surprisingly, these cells express low surface levels of the mature T-cell marker CD4.