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J Immunol. 2011 May 1;186(9):5313-22. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1002404. Epub 2011 Mar 18.

Temporal regulation of intracellular organelle homeostasis in T lymphocytes by autophagy.

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


The highly conserved self-degradation pathway known as autophagy plays important roles in regulating T lymphocyte homeostasis. Recently, we found that T lymphocytes lacking the autophagy-related gene Atg5 or Atg7 have defective survival and contain expanded mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum (ER); however, whether these defects are caused by impaired autophagy or by defects in their autophagy-independent signaling capacity of Atg5 or Atg7 in T lymphocytes remains unknown. Furthermore, the function of the microtubule-associated protein L chain 3 (LC3) conjugation system in T lymphocytes remains unclear. To address these questions, we generated conditional knockout mice with specific deletion of Atg3, a ubiquitin enzyme E2-like molecule involved in the LC3 conjugation system, in T lymphocytes. Atg3-deficient T lymphocytes displayed a phenotype similar to those of Atg7- and Atg5-deficient T cells. The survival of Atg3-deficient naive CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells was defective. Furthermore, the mitochondria and ER were expanded in Atg3-deficient T cells. Interestingly, mitochondrial and ER content did not change instantly upon inducible deletion of Atg3 in mature T lymphocytes in vitro. Instead, it began to expand 10 d after inducible deletion of Atg3 in mature T lymphocytes, and mitochondrial content continued to increase on day 18. Cell death began to increase 24 d after inducible deletion of Atg3. These data show that the LC3 conjugation system is essential for autophagy in T lymphocytes. Our data suggest that autophagy promotes T lymphocyte survival by regulating organelle homeostasis and that the decreased survival of autophagy-deficient T cells is due to the temporal accumulation of these autophagy-related defects.

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