Cell surface proteins encoded by members of the immunoglobulin supergene family are sequentially expressed during T cell ontogeny. The molecular mechanisms responsible for the regulation of these surface molecules are not well understood. To investigate this issue, we used a series of well characterized T lymphoma cell clones with phenotypes characteristic of distinct stages of early thymocyte maturation. Somatic cell hybrids formed from these cell lines were employed to detect the presence of negative regulatory molecules. The expression of CD4 and CD8 was strongly repressed in hybrids formed between a CD4+ CD8+ lymphoma clone and "immature" CD4- CD8- lymphoma clones. Individual subunits of the T cell receptor (TCR)/CD3 complex displayed independent regulation in unique patterns in hybrid cells. Hybrids formed by fusing CD3+ and CD3- cells completely repressed CD3-delta mRNA expression while CD3-gamma, -epsilon, and -zeta transcripts were moderately inhibited or codominantly regulated. Similar to CD3-delta, interleukin 2R-alpha(IL-2R-alpha), and TCR-beta mRNA accumulation was trans-negatively regulated. Transcription rate measurements demonstrated that the inhibition of CD4, CD8, CD3-gamma, CD3-epsilon, TCR-beta, and IL-2R-alpha mRNA accumulation in hybrid cells was exerted, at least in part, at the transcriptional level. To test whether repressional regulation is a general feature of T cells, we examined the regulation of six novel genes which were selected solely on the basis of their differential expression between two of the cell lines used in this study. Five of the six novel gene transcripts were repressed in the somatic cell hybrids. Thus, inhibitor factors appear to play a general role in controlling T cell gene expression. The model system presented here may be useful for the identification and characterization of repressor molecules responsible for the regulation of genes expressed during T cell ontogeny.