Previous studies have shown that CD8 beta plays a role in both enhancing CD8 alpha-associated Lck kinase activity and promoting the development of CD8-lineage T cells. To examine the role of this enhancement in the maturation of CD8-lineage cells, we assessed CD8 alpha-associated Lck kinase activity in both T cell hybridomas and thymocytes of mice expressing CD8 beta mutations known to impair CD8 T cell development. Lack of CD8 beta expression or expression of a cytoplasmic domain-deleted CD8 beta resulted in a severalfold reduction in CD8 alpha-associated Lck kinase activity compared with that observed with cells expressing wild-type CD8 beta chain. This analysis indicated a critical role for the cytoplasmic domain of CD8 beta in the regulation of CD8 alpha-associated Lck activity. Decreased CD8 alpha-associated Lck activity observed with the various CD8 beta mutations also correlated with diminished in vivo cellular tyrosine phosphorylation. In addition, analysis of CD8 beta mutant mice (CD8 beta-/- or cytoplasmic domain-deleted CD8 beta transgenic) indicated that the degree of reduction in CD8 alpha-associated Lck activity associated with each mutation correlated with the severity of developmental impairment. These results support the importance of CD8 beta-mediated enhancement of CD8 alpha-associated Lck kinase activity in the differentiation of CD8 single-positive thymocytes.