The novel early activation antigen, EA1, has been shown to be induced by mitogens, antigens and the tumour promoter, phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), on human lymphocytes. This antigen has been designated to be CD69. EA1 has also been shown to be expressed on thymocytes without exogenous activation stimuli. In order to characterize further the expression of EA1 on thymocytes, the ontogeny of its expression was studied. EA1 appeared between 7 and 9.5 weeks of gestation, after colonization of the thymic rudiment with CD7+ T cell precursors, but before the onset of compartmentalization of the thymus into cortical and medullary zones. After cortico-medullary differentiation, the majority of medullary thymocytes expressed EA1 while only a fraction of the cortical thymocytes expressed this antigen. In the fetal and post-natal cortex, EA1 expression appeared to cluster in the subcapsular cortex. EA1+ cells were also scattered throughout the inner cortex. By two-colour fluorocytometric analysis of post-natal thymocytes, it was shown that EA1 was expressed on 30 to 65% of thymocytes. EA1 was expressed on CD4+ CD8+ as well as on the more immature CD4- CD8- thymocytes. In contrast to circulating T cells, thymocytes were much less responsive to PMA stimulation for the expression of EA1. Molecular characterization showed that EA1 on thymocytes had the same structure as that of activated peripheral T cells. In addition, thymic EA1 was constitutively phosphorylated. Thus, EA1 expression is acquired early during thymic development after colonization of the thymic rudiment by CD7+ T cell precursors. However, the specific role that EA1 may play in the activation and function of developing thymocytes remains to be determined.