We have investigated the phenotypic changes that take place during the process of neoplastic transformation in the thymocytes of C57BL/Ka mice infected by the radiation leukemia virus (RadLV). By the combined use of antibodies against the envelope glycoprotein gp70 of RadLV, the transformation-associated cell surface marker 1C11, and the CD3-T-cell receptor (TCR) complex, we found that in the RadLV-infected thymus, the earliest expression of viral gp70 is in 1C11hi cells; a small but significant percentage of these cells also express CD3. A first wave of viral replication, manifested by the expression of high levels of gp70 in thymocytes (over 70% positive), reaches a peak at 2 weeks; during this period, no significant changes are observed in the expression of 1C11 or CD3. The population of gp70+ cells is drastically reduced at 3 to 4 weeks after infection. However, a second cohort of gp70+ cells appears after 4 weeks, and these cells express high levels of 1C11 and TCR determinants as well. RadLV-induced lymphomas differ from normal thymocytes in their CD4 CD8 phenotype, with domination by one or more subsets. Characterization of TCR gene rearrangements in RadLV-induced lymphomas shows that most of these tumors are clonal or oligoclonal with respect to the J beta 2 TCR gene, while the J beta 1 TCR gene is rearranged in a minority (4 of 11) of lymphomas. TCR V beta repertoire analysis of 12 tumors reveals that 6 (50%) express exclusively the V beta 6 gene product, 2 (17%) are V beta 5+, and 1 (8%) each are V beta 8+ and V beta 9+. In normal C57BL/Ka mice, V beta 6 is expressed on 12%, V beta 5 is expressed on 9%, V beta 8 is expressed on 22%, and V beta 9 is expressed on 4% of TCRhi thymocytes. Thus, it appears that RadLV-induced thymic lymphomas are not randomly selected with respect to expressed TCR V beta type.