The immunosuppressant FK506 did not block differentiation of double-negative thymocytes into double-positive (DP) cells, but interfered with differentiation of DP cells into mature single-positive cells in a fetal thymus organ culture system, suggesting that FK506 inhibits positive selection. The drug also reduced the number of DP cells recovered after the culture. As positive selection depends on the inhibition of thymocyte apoptosis at its DP stage by signaling through the TCR-CD3 complex and some of the accessory molecules, including CD4, CD8 and LFA-1, we studied the possibility that FK506 enhanced apoptosis by itself or canceled the inhibition of apoptosis. The results indicated that FK506 was hardly toxic or hardly affected anti-CD3-induced DNA fragmentation in isolated thymocytes in vitro. On the other hand, upon cross-linking TCR-CD3 together with CD4, CD8 or LFA-1, FK506 markedly enhanced DNA fragmentation and cytolysis. The drug, however, hardly or only slightly enhanced these responses upon cross-linking TCR-CD3 together with CD2, CD28, Thy-1 or H-2Kd. Cross-linking of TCR-CD3 together with CD4, CD8 or LFA-1 markedly inhibited glucocorticoid-induced death and the inhibition was canceled by FK506. Furthermore, cross-linking of TCR-CD3 together with LFA-1 potentially induces both an apoptosis-inducing signal and an FK506-sensitive anti-apoptotic signal, and that the latter signal may be related to an essential signal for positive selection.