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J Immunol. 2009 Apr 1;182(7):4046-55. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.0801143.

Autophagy is essential for mitochondrial clearance in mature T lymphocytes.

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  • 1Department of Immunology, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710, USA.


Macroautophagy plays an important role in the regulation of cell survival, metabolism, and the lysosomal degradation of cytoplasmic material. In the immune system, autophagy contributes to the clearance of intracellular pathogens, MHCII cross-presentation of endogenous Ags, as well as cell survival. We and others have demonstrated that autophagy occurs in T lymphocytes and contributes to the regulation of their cellular function, including survival and proliferation. Here we show that the essential autophagy gene Atg7 is required in a cell-intrinsic manner for the survival of mature primary T lymphocytes. We also find that mitochondrial content is developmentally regulated in T but not in B cells, with exit from the thymus marking a transition from high mitochondrial content in thymocytes to lower mitochondrial content in mature T cells. Macroautophagy has been proposed to play an important role in the clearance of intracellular organelles, and autophagy-deficient mature T cells fail to reduce their mitochondrial content in vivo. Consistent with alterations in mitochondrial content, autophagy-deficient T cells have increased reactive oxygen species production as well as an imbalance in pro- and antiapoptotic protein expression. With much recent interest in the possibility of autophagy-dependent developmentally programmed clearance of organelles in lens epithelial cells and erythrocytes, our data demonstrate that autophagy may have a physiologically significant role in the clearance of superfluous mitochondria in T lymphocytes as part of normal T cell homeostasis.

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