Gamma delta (gamma delta) T cells have been found in all vertebrates examined, yet their function in vivo remains unknown. Because gamma delta T cell receptors are related to immunoglobulin, and because they are encoded by rearranging, multi-gene families, the receptors are thought to be antigen recognition molecules. However, a capacity to recognize naturally diverse antigens has not yet been shown. In this work, the expression and structure of human gamma delta transcripts have been examined in the fetal and early post-natal thymus. The data indicate that many gamma and delta genes are rearranged and expressed throughout ontogeny, but that as ontogeny proceeds, quite dramatic changes occur in the patterns of gene expression and rearrangement. In particular, receptors encoded by early to mid-gestation fetal thymic transcripts would be of quite restricted diversity. Only later in ontogeny can receptors of substantial diversity be generated. These properties are very similar to the patterns of gamma delta gene activation in the mouse, and they serve to reiterate similarities both in gene rearrangement and in gamma delta across vertebrate species.