CD3 gamma, delta, epsilon, and zeta proteins together with the pre-TCR alpha-chain (pT alpha) and a rearranged TCR beta-chain assemble to form the pre-TCR that controls the double negative (DN) to double positive (DP) stages of thymopoiesis. The CD3 proteins are expressed before pT alpha and TCR beta-chains in prothymocytes and are expressed intracellularly in precursor NK cells, suggesting that the CD3 complex may function independent of pT alpha and TCR beta. In this report, both the role of CD3 epsilon exclusively, and the role of CD3 proteins collectively, in thymocyte and NK cell development were examined. In a mouse strain termed E delta P, a neomycin cassette inserted within the CD3 epsilon promoter abolishes CD3 epsilon and delta expression and also abolishes CD3 gamma expression in all but a small minority (< or =1%) of prothymocytes. These prothymocytes became deficient in CD3 epsilon alone upon reconstitution of CD3 delta expression and were severely, but not completely, arrested at the DN stage, as small numbers of double positive thymocytes were detected. In de facto CD3 gamma delta epsilon zeta(null) mice generated by crossing the epsilon delta P mice with CD3 zeta-/- mice, thymopoiesis were arrested at the CD44-CD25+ DN stage as observed in RAG-/- mice, DJ and VDJ recombination at the TCR beta locus was functional, and normal numbers of NK cells were detected. Together, the findings demonstrate that during thymocyte development, the CD3 complex collectively is not essential until the critical CD44-CD25+ DN stage in which pre-TCR begins to function, whereas CD3 epsilon is critical for the assembly of pre-TCR. Moreover, CD3 proteins are dispensable for NK cell development.