The V(D)J recombinase activating genes, RAG-1 and RAG-2, are coexpressed only in immature lymphocytes, and are sufficient and necessary for V(D)J recombination to occur in non-lymphoid cells. In order to examine control mechanisms operative in the regulation of RAG-1 and RAG-2, we have studied the pattern of expression of these genes in human pre-T cells, pre-B cells, and thymocytes treated with the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA); an agent which mimics some of the lymphocyte maturation changes seen in vivo. The expression of RAG-1 and RAG-2 was tightly controlled in a rapid, yet very complex, manner with both positive and negative control elements operating. Treatment of immature lymphocytes with TPA caused the specific and rapid elimination of steady-state RAG-1 and RAG-2 RNA. Nuclear run-on assays showed that TPA completely repressed the transcription of RAG-1 within 30 min. In addition to repressing the transcription of RAG-1, TPA treatment caused the rapid and specific degradation of RAG-1 transcripts by decreasing the apparent half-life of RAG-1 mRNA more than two-fold. As judged by cycloheximide treatment of cells, the effects of TPA were not dependent on new protein synthesis. A labile transcriptional repressor, separate from the TPA-associated repression of transcription, was also active in cells transcribing RAG-1 and RAG-2 RNA. After depletion of this labile repressor by cycloheximide treatment, steady-state RAG-1 and RAG-2 RNA levels, and their transcription rates, were elevated four- to six-fold; but were still susceptible to elimination by TPA treatment. Treatment of pre-T CEM cells with interleukin-2, or theophylline (an agent that increases intracellular cAMP) resulted in a two-fold increase in RAG-1 RNA suggesting that lymphokines, either independently or through second messengers, may modulate RAG-1 and RAG-2 expression. The complex, rapid and precise regulation of RAG-1 and RAG-2 expression is consistent with the view that it is necessary for the cell to tightly regulate V(D)J recombinase levels; lower expression may result in inefficient recombination of Ig/TCR genes, whereas increased expression may lead to recombination errors that are deleterious to the cell.