Previous studies have shown that insulin-dependent diabetes can be induced in normal PVG.RT1u rats by a protocol of adult thymectomy and irradiation. The injection of CD4+ T cells from non-irradiated syngeneic donors prevents the onset of disease in approximately 50% of pre-diabetic recipients but all rats are protected if a particular subset of CD4+ cells is transferred. These protective cells express TCR alpha beta and have a memory phenotype, being CD45RClow RT6+. Further studies have demonstrated that the transfer of CD4+CD8- thymocytes, like that of unfractionated CD4+ peripheral T cells, also protects approximately half of recipients from diabetes suggesting that, as with the peripheral T cells, a functional heterogeneity may exist amongst CD4+CD8- thymocytes. In this study, we show that L-selectin is expressed by 50-60% of all CD4+CD8- thymocytes from 6-week-old rats. Adoptive transfer of these populations into thymectomized and irradiated rats revealed that the protection from diabetes observed by CD4+CD8- thymocytes was mediated almost entirely by the L-selectin+ subset. Cells with this phenotype were also able to mediate both humoral and cell mediated responses, providing primed B cells with help for secondary antibody responses and mediating local graft-versus-host reactions. L-selectin- CD4+CD8- thymocytes failed to mediate these responses. These data indicate that CD4+CD8- thymocytes must mature to the stage of L-selectin expression, before they can mediate normal T cell function. The implications of these results are discussed with respect to the possible role of murine NK1.1+ thymocytes in the control of autoimmunity.