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During early fetal development, T cell precursors home from fetal yolk sac and liver to the epithelial thymic rudiment. From cells that initially colonize the thymus arise mature T cells that populate T cell zones of the peripheral lymphoid system. Whereas colonization of the thymus occurs late in the final third of gestation in the mouse, in birds and humans the thymus is colonized by hematopoietic stem cell precursors during the first third of gestation. Using a large series of early human fetal tissues and a panel of monoclonal antibodies that includes markers of early T cells (CD7, CD45), we have studied the immunohistologic location and differentiation capacity of CD45+, CD7+ cells in human fetal tissues. We found that before T cell precursor colonization of the thymus (7-8 wk of gestation), CD7+ cells were present in yolk sac, neck, upper thorax, and fetal liver, and were concentrated in mesenchyme throughout the upper thorax and neck areas. By 9.5 wk of gestation, CD7+ cells were no longer present in upper thorax mesenchyme but rather were localized in the lymphoid thymus and scattered throughout fetal liver. CD7+, CD2-, CD3-, CD8-, CD4-, WT31- cells in thorax and fetal liver, when stimulated for 10-15 d with T cell-conditioned media and rIL-2, expressed CD2, CD3, CD4, CD8, and WT31 markers of the T cell lineage. Moreover, CD7+ cells isolated from fetal liver contained all cells in this tissue capable of forming CFU-T colonies in vitro. These data demonstrate that T cell precursors in early human fetal tissues can be identified using a mAb against the CD7 antigen. Moreover, the localization of CD7+ T cell precursors to fetal upper thorax and neck areas at 7-8.5 wk of fetal gestation provides strong evidence for a developmentally regulated period in man in which T cell precursors migrate to the epithelial thymic rudiment.