In previous in vitro studies, we proposed a role for the extracellular matrix component, laminin- 2, and its integrin receptor, VLA-6, in thymocyte development. The characterization of two dystrophic mouse strains with different defects in laminin-2 allowed us to examine this proposal in vivo. Mice deficient in laminin-2, dy/dy, show a significant reduction in thymus size and number of thymocytes compared to normal littermates. These mice also exhibited apparent alterations of thymic architecture. Examination of the CD4/CD8 populations in dy/dy thymi showed large relative increases in the DN (CD4-CD8-) and SP (CD4+CD8-, CD4-CD8+) populations and a significant decrease in the DP (CD4+CD8+) population. Further examination of the DN population for CD44 and CD25 expression showed a remarkable decrease in the more mature pre-T cell populations. Analysis of apoptosis in situ, and by flow cytometry, in dy/dy thymi revealed a significant increase in apoptotic DN thymocytes in the capsule and subcapsular regions. Interestingly, thymocyte development appeared to proceed normally in dystrophic mice expressing a mutant form of laminin-2, dy2J, as well as, in fetal and neonatal dy/dy mice. We propose that laminin-2 plays an active role in thymocyte development by delivering cell survival and differentiation signals at specific stages of development in young adult mice.