Apoptosis plays a critical role during T cell development, both in the generation of functionally competent T cells in the thymus and the regulation of peripheral T cell populations. The fate of any T cell, whether it is developing in the thymus, or functioning in the peripheral immune system, is dependent on T cell receptor (TCR) specificity for antigens presented by MHC molecules and on the consequences of TCR-generated intracellular signalling pathways which lead to activation, anergy or apoptosis. This review describes data that have elucidated the way in which these highly regulated TCR-derived signalling pathways lead to such diverse final outcomes in thymocytes. Contributions to the induction of apoptosis in thymocytes by signalling pathways and receptors such as Fas, CD45 and CD28 are summarized, particularly with regard to the analysis of relevant transgenic mice. Developments concerning regulation of apoptosis by bcl-2 family members and the possible effectors of apoptosis, proteases, are assessed. Finally, this information is contrasted with the relatively scarce data on signalling pathways in thymic-derived T-ALL cells together with potential explanations of how transformation might occur by perturbation of apoptotic mechanisms. Precise understanding of these pathways may lead to the development of novel therapeutic reagents.