The CD4 and CD8 coreceptors have been shown to play significant roles in the differentiation and activation of helper and cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs), respectively. Coordinate binding of coreceptor and T cell receptor (TCR) to the same major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule and coreceptor interaction with the tyrosine kinase p56lck are required for effective signaling. Whereas CD4 is a monomer, CD8 consists of either alpha alpha homodimers or alpha beta heterodimers. Signaling properties of CD8 have been ascribed to the alpha chain, which binds to both the MHC class I and to p56lck, respectively. To study CD8 beta specifically, we have generated mice defective in its expression. We observe a significant reduction in the numbers of CD8+ T cells, but these cells have normal CTL activity. By breeding CD8 beta null mice with animals expressing a class I-specific TCR transgene, we show that CD8 beta plays a significant role in both positive and negative selection of developing thymocytes.