The activity of the IgH (E mu) enhancer in the T lymphocyte lineage has been investigated using both transgenic mice and transfection studies. Thymocyte fractionation experiments indicate that a transgene consisting of the bacterial chloramphenicol acetyl transferase (CAT) gene, linked to E mu and the SV40 early promoter (E mu-CAT), is expressed only in thymocytes with a mature medullary phenotype and not in immature cells. Transfection of this same construct into two thymoma cell lines representing different stages of thymocyte development mimics the pattern of activity observed in vivo. Further transfection experiments suggest that this pattern of expression might be attributed to the differential activity of the E2E3 and octanucleotide motifs of E mu during development. In contrast, an Ig lambda transgene (linked to E mu and an Ig V lambda promoter) is expressed in the majority of thymocytes. We envisage that the different patterns of expression of the two transgenes reflect interactions between their respective promoters and the factors which are bound to E mu at different stages of thymocyte development. Although differing in their pattern of expression within the thymus, the two transgenes share the property of extinction in peripheral T lymphocytes. These results indicate that the expression of E mu-linked transgenes in the thymus cannot simply be explained by activation of the enhancer in a lymphoid progenitor cell prior to B/T lineage divergence. Rather, the enhancer (or components of it) must be independently activated (and inactivated) during T lymphocyte development. Furthermore, this activity is consistent with the developmental timing of Ig DH-JH rearrangements in these cells.