The receptors found on most T lymphocytes bind to antigen presented on major histocompatibility complex proteins and consist of dimers of alpha- and beta-polypeptides associated with the invariant CD3 complex. A fully competent immune system requires a diverse array of T-cell antigen receptors (TCRs) with different specificities. This diversity is generated by rearrangement of TCR alpha- and beta-chain gene segments within the thymus where the receptors are first expressed. Any cells carrying self-reactive receptors must be eliminated, suppressed or inactivated so that destructive autoimmunity is avoided. Recently, compelling evidence has shown that one process involved in producing such self-tolerance is clonal deletion of autoreactive cells within the thymus by an as-yet-undefined mechanism. Here we show that engaging the CD3/TCR complex of immature mouse thymocytes with anti-CD3 antibodies produces DNA degradation and cell death through the endogenous pathway of apoptosis. Activation of this process in immature T cells by the binding of the TCR to self-antigens may therefore be the mechanism which produces clonal deletion and consequently self-tolerance.