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In Vivo. 1998 Jan-Feb;12(1):123-33.

Apoptosis in the mammalian thymus during normal histogenesis and under various in vitro and in vivo experimental conditions.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA.


Programmed cell death (PCD), also known as apoptosis, is a genetically controlled cellular response, manifested in morphologically distinct non-necrotic cellular destruction: cell shrinkage, cytoplasmic "boiling", condensation of chromatin, loss of nuclear membrane followed by DNA fragmentation and cell membrane blebbing, all of which initiate the formation of apoptotic bodies. During the early stages of PCD, cell membrane phospholipid asymmetry is altered, resulting in the dislocation of phosphatidylserine (PS) to the cell surface. During apoptosis, DNA is cut by endonucleases at DNA-linked sites between nucleosomes, producing a number of multimers of nucleosomal DNA units in the cell nuclei. The mechanism of apoptosis and the cellular signals involved in its induction have been studied during thymic prenatal ontogenesis and postnatal development, mainly in immature thymocytes and in the cells of the reticulo-epithelial (RE) network. In thymocytes or resting T lymphocytes, p53 tumor suppressor protein was identified to be a critical mediator of apoptosis in response to DNA damage. The cellular interaction of immature, cortical thymocytes (characterized by a double positive CD4+CD8+TCRlow immunophenotype) with thymic RE cells induces positive selection of T lymphocytes that recognize, but are not activated by self-MHC molecules (tolerance induction). Double positive CD4+CD8+CD3- thymocytes undergo Fas-mediated apoptosis, while CD4+CD8+CD3+ cells use the CD3 mediated pathway of PCD. Two step, apoptotic cell death is mainly restricted to the CD4+CD8+TCRdull thymocyte subpopulation. T-lymphocytes which do not undergo positive selection are killed by apoptosis in response to a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, such as chemical toxins, viral infections, X- and UV irradiation, mild hyperthermia, the actions of various hormones, extracellular survival factors, calcium ionophores (such as A23187), various chemotherapeutic drugs (adriamycin, actinomycin D, etc) and antibodies directed to the CD3-TCR (T cell receptor) complex. Immature thymocytes also undergo a second selective process, so-called negative selection, when thymic stromal cells eliminate autoreactive T lymphocytes. This process has been termed clonal deletion and also involves apoptosis. In addition to the two intrathymic T lymphocyte selection mechanisms, Immunocompetent, but autoreactive T lymphocytes which have already reached the periphery are also eliminated by apoptosis. All the divers stimuli of PCD are associated with an increase in the concentration of cytosolic calcium ions (Ca+2), which activate an endogenous endonuclease. This trigger for PCD results in rapid cleavage of DNA, a hallmark of apoptosis. Despite the diversity of the signals that can trigger apoptosis, the changes in cellular morphology characteristic of PCD are very similar. The uniformity of the morphological changes suggests the existence of a predetermined, final and common cell suicide pathway. Apoptosis requires energy in the form of ATP, indicating that PCD, as opposed to necrosis, is an energy dependent, active physiological and pathophysiological phenomenon.

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