Activation of peripheral blood T cells by cross-linking of CD3 results in a rapid and substantial rise in translation rates and proliferation, which coincides with an increase in the cap-binding protein, eIF4E activity. In contrast, immature CD4+ CD8+ double-positive (DP) thymocytes undergo apoptosis in response to anti-CD3 mAb. We have investigated translation initiation in the response of immature thymocytes to activating signals. Activation by anti-CD3 + anti-CD4 of immature CD4+ CD8+ DP thymocytes results in a rapid decrease in protein synthesis. In contrast, similar treatment of CD4+ or CD8+ single-positive (SP) thymocytes results in an increase in protein synthesis. The rate of protein synthesis is linked to the phosphorylation status of eIF4E. Following anti-CD3 + anti-CD4 stimulation, eIF4E phosphorylation strongly decreases in immature DP thymocytes, whereas it increases in mature SP thymocytes. The expression of 4E-BP2, a specific repressor of eIF4E function, is high in DP cells but decreases during maturation, raising the possibility of a role for 4E-BP2 in repressing eIF4E phosphorylation. These data provide evidence for differential regulation of the translational machinery during T cell development.