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Eur J Immunol. 1998 Sep;28(9):2882-92.

Thymic heterotypic cellular complexes in gene-targeted mice with defined blocks in T cell development and adhesion molecule expression.

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Institute for General and Experimental Pathology, Medical School, University of Innsbruck, Austria.


Thymocytes form unique multicellular complexes with epithelial cells (thymic nurse cells, TNC) and rosettes (ROS) with macrophages, epithelial cells and dendritic cells. To investigate the role of differentiation checkpoints in the formation of the thymic heterotypic complexes in vivo, we used mutant mice which have genetically defined blocks at early and late stages of T cell development. We show that RAG-1-/-, TCRbeta-/- , and p56lck-/- mice lack thymocyte ROS formation with epithelial cells, macrophages, or dendritic cells. TNC formation was not affected by TCRbeta and p56lck gene mutations but partially decreased in RAG-1-/- mice, indicating that TNC are the earliest thymocyte-stromal cell complexes formed in development, whereas ROS only appear after thymocytes have rearranged and expressed a functional TCRbeta chain. Genetic blocks in CD8 lineage commitment (CD8-/- and IFN regulatory factor-1-/- mice) and positive and negative T cell selection (CD45-/-, TCRalpha-/-, and CD30-/- mice) did not affect thymocyte-stromal cell complexes. Surprisingly, CD4-/- mice, but not MHC class II-/- mice, had significantly reduced numbers of TNC and ROS, in particular, a severe defect in ROS formation with thymic dendritic cells. The CD4-/- block in ROS and TNC formation was rescued by the introduction of a human CD4 transgene. Moreover, we show that the adhesion receptors CD44 and LFA-1 cooperate in the formation of the thymic microenvironment. These results provide genetic evidence on the role of defined stages in T cell development and adhesion molecules on thymocyte/stromal cell interactions in vitro.

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