Recent experiments in our laboratory have focused on the receptor engagements required for the differentiation of fully mature, single positive thymocytes from their double positive precursors. We have used a novel approach which involves the ligation of surface receptors on immature thymocytes with genetically engineered F(ab′)2 reagents, which, unlike conventional antibodies, do not aggregate the CD3 complex to such an extent as to induce extensive deletion of these cells. The experimental data presented in this review indicate that differentiation of the two mature CD4 and CD8 lineages occurs in response to distinct intracellular signals induced by particular receptor engagements. The data suggest that the tyrosine kinase p56lck (lck) plays a crucial role in determining lineage choice, in that maturation of thymocytes into the CD4 lineage occurs upon recruitment of active lck to the T-cell receptor (TCR)/CD3 complex, whereas CD8 maturation can be induced by CD3 ligation in the absence of co-receptor-mediated lck recruitment. A central role for lck activity in determining the threshold for differentiation of the CD4 lineage is revealed in experiments with thymi deficient for a regulator of lck activity, CD45. A model of thymocyte differentiation is presented in which we propose that the relative balance of signals delivered by TCR engagement and lck activation determines lineage choice.