Highly purified human CD34+ fetal liver stem cells differentiate to mature T cells when seeded in vitro into isolated fetal thymic lobes of severe combined immunodeficient (SCID) mice followed by fetal thymus organ culture (FTOC). Here, this chimeric human-mouse FTOC was used to address the role of interleukin-7 (IL-7) and of the alpha chain of the IL-7 receptor (IL-7R alpha) in early human T-cell development. We report that addition of either the monoclonal antibody (MoAb) M25, which neutralizes both human and mouse IL-7, or the MoAb M21, which recognizes and blocks exclusively the human high-affinity alpha-chain of the IL-7R, results in a profound reduction in human thymic cellularity. Analysis of lymphoid subpopulations indicates that a highly reduced number of cells undergo maturation from CD34+ precursor cells toward CD4+CD3-CD1+ progenitor cells and subsequently toward CD4+CD8+ thymocytes. Our results reveal a critical role for IL-7 during early human thymocyte development, and may explain the absence or highly reduced levels of T cells in patients with X-linked SCID. The molecular defect in these patients has been shown to be a mutation in the gamma chain of the IL-2R. Although this gamma chain is not only present in the IL-2R, but also forms an essential part of other cytokine receptors, including IL-4, IL-7, IL-9, IL-13, and IL-15, the T- cell defect in these patients can be explained by the fact that IL-7 is not able to transduce its signal by the molecular defect of the common gamma (gamma c) chain and that IL-7 is indispensable for T-cell development.