Abnormalities in postthymic T cell development in the BB/W rat model of autoimmune insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) result in part from a lymphopenia (lyp) gene defect. To better characterize these abnormalities, the phenotypes of T cells from diabetes-prone (DP) and diabetes-resistant (DR) coisogenic rats were analyzed by multiparameter flow immunocytometry (FCM). Marked decreases in the numbers of Thy1- RT6+ T cells, most of which are CD8+, were documented in DP rats by live-gating. Conversely, an approximately 3-fold increase was observed in the percentage of Thy1+ RT6- T cells, which normally serve as the precursors of both Thy1- RT6+ and Thy1- RT6- T cell subsets in rats. These results suggested that, at a minimum, an arrest in maturation of the Thy1+ precursors of RT6+ T cells occurs postthymically in DP rats. To determine more precisely the stage(s) in T cell development at which lymphopenia occurs, the export and fate of recent thymic emigrants (RTE's) and their immediate descendants in DP rats was traced after intrathymic (i.t.) labelling with fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC). The results showed that in DP, as compared with DR, rats: 1) 5-fold fewer RTE's are exported from the thymus per 24 hr; 2) more than 80% of the RTE's are CD4+; 3) most of the immediate descendants of RTE's disappear from the peripheral lymphoid tissues within one week after export from the thymus; and 4) few of the descendants of the RTE's that do survive differentiate into RT6+ T cells. Staining with propidium iodide revealed that a significantly higher proportion of Thy1+ T cells in DP than in DR rats are in cycle (S/G2/M), thereby accounting for their disproportionately high numbers relative to RTE's. These results indicate that, in addition to defective thymic export, most of the immediate descendants of RTE's in DP rats undergo non-productive proliferation and death at the time (3-7 days postthymic) at which their counterparts in DR rats differentiate into Thy1- RT6+ T cells. The resulting deficiency of immunoregulatory T cells, acting in concert with defective intrathymic selection of effector T cell precursors, appears to conspire to markedly enhance the predisposition of DP rats to autoimmunity.