The Src-related protein tyrosine kinase p56lck is essential for antigen-specific signal transduction and thymic maturation of T cells that have an alpha beta T cell receptor (TCR), presumably by physical association with CD4 or CD8 molecules. To evaluate the requirement for p56lck in the development of T cells that have gamma delta TCRs, which generally do not express CD4 or CD8, p56lck mutant mice were bred with TCR gamma delta transgenic mice. Few peripheral cells that carried the transgenes could be detected in p56lck-/- mice, although 70 percent of thymocytes were transgenic. Development of transgenic gamma delta+ thymocytes was blocked at an early stage, defined by interleukin-2 receptor alpha expression. However, extrathymic development of CD8 alpha alpha+ TCR gamma delta+ intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes appeared to be normal. Thus, p56lck is crucial for the thymic, but not intestinal, maturation of gamma delta T cells and may function in thymic development independently of CD4 or CD8.