mAb R73 detects a T cell-specific surface molecule consisting of two disulfide-linked subunits of 40 and 46 kD, respectively, on 97% of peripheral rat T cells, as defined by the OX-52 marker. Of the few OX- 52+ R73- cells, none are CD4+ but many express the CD8 antigen known to be present on rat NK cells. mAb R73 is mitogenic for unseparated spleen cells and for purified T cells. In the absence of non-T "accessory cells", stimulation by R73 requires artificial crosslinking of the mAb and is largely dependent on exogenous IL-2. Overnight incubation of purified T cells with crosslinked R73 mAb induces blastoid transformation, IL-2-R expression, and modulation of the R73 antigen. In the rat thymus, mature medullary cells express the R73 determinant at the same level as peripheral T cells, whereas 94% of CD4-CD8- thymocytes are R73-. The major CD4+8+ thymocyte population contains 25% R73- and 70% R73low cells. Thymocytes of the CD4-CD8+OX-44- subpopulation that are the direct precursors of CD4+CD8+ cells display a continuum of R73 antigen density from undetectable to very low levels. We conclude that R73 is most likely directed at a constant determinant of the rat alpha/beta heterodimeric TCR and suggest that CD8+ immature thymocytes are the first cells in the T cell differentiation pathway to express this molecule at their surface.