IL-2R alpha-chain is expressed on a subset of mouse CD4- and CD8-, double negative (DN) thymocytes. This expression of IL-2R alpha-chain on some DN thymocytes in the mouse has led to the proposal that IL-2 might serve as a principal growth and/or differentiation factor for immature thymocytes. However, previous histologic observations have indicated that IL-2R alpha-chain is not expressed on the subcapsular thymic blasts (an area rich in DN cells) in either huma or rat thymus, whereas all three species display IL-2R expression on a few cells in the thymic medulla. Therefore, we characterized rat DN thymocytes to determine whether they contained an IL-2R+ population. The results show that rat thymic DN cells share several characteristics with mouse DN cells. However, most of the rat strains do not express the IL-2R on DN cells as shown either by immunofluorescence or by IL-2 binding and receptor cross-linking. Thus, the rare medullary IL-2R+ cells were not found in the DN cells. Only in the exceptional F344 rat strain is the IL-2R alpha-chain expressed on a major proportion of thymocytes, including both DN cells and small cortical-type thymocytes. Furthermore, rat DN cells do not contain detectable IL-2 mRNA or cytoplasmic IL-2 activity, thus supporting the conclusion that it is unlikely that IL-2 and IL-2R serve to maintain the proliferation of rat DN thymocytes in vivo. The possible significance of in vivo expression of IL-2R alpha-chain on immature thymocytes in the mouse and in a single rat strain is discussed.