Engagement of the clonotypic antigen receptor (TCR) on T lymphocytes provokes an activation response leading to cell proliferation and lymphokine secretion. To examine the molecular basis of T cell signaling, we generated transgenic animals in which a lymphocyte-specific nonreceptor protein-tyrosine kinase p59fyn(T) is 20-fold overexpressed in developing T lineage cells. Thymocytes from these mice, analyzed using both cellular and biochemical assays, were remarkably hyperstimulable. Moreover, the responsiveness of normal thymocytes to TCR-derived signals correlated well with the extent to which p59fyn was expressed in these cells. Overexpression of a catalytically inactive form of p59fyn substantially inhibited TCR-mediated activation in otherwise normal thymocytes. These effects are unique to p59fyn; overexpression of a closely related T cell-specific tyrosine kinase, p56lck, elicits dramatically different phenotypes. Our results suggest that p59fyn is a critically important component of the TCR signal transduction apparatus.