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Curr Biol. 1995 Jun 1;5(6):659-69.

Alpha beta and gamma delta T cells can share a late common precursor.

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Department of Biology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06510, USA.



The subdivision of T cells into alpha beta and gamma delta subtypes is conserved throughout vertebrate development. The respective alpha beta and gamma delta T-cell receptors (TCRs) are encoded by somatically rearranged genes. There has been broad speculation as to whether an individual thymocyte can become either a gamma delta T cell or an alpha beta T cell as a result of stochastic gene rearrangement processes, or whether the two types of T cell are derived from separate lineages. Many of the experimental findings are apparently conflicting, however, and the issue--a basic one in immunology and development--remains unresolved.


To address this issue, we have used the recently developed polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) technique, which allows us to examine quantitatively the status of TCR gamma and delta genes in postnatal alpha beta T cells and their progenitors. Interestingly, such cells are depleted of productively rearranged delta and gamma genes, which can encode delta and gamma TCR polypeptide chains. However, in mice that can rearrange TCR delta gene segments, but in which the TCR delta gene is non-functional in other respects, no such depletion of productive rearrangements is seen.


The quantitative data that we have obtained fulfill the predictions of the stochastic hypothesis: that is, a progenitor T cell first attempts to become a gamma delta T cell and, if unsuccessful, then attempts to become an alpha beta T cell. Thus, alpha beta and gamma delta T cells can derive from a common precursor thymocyte. In the simplest case, therefore, lineage-determining factors are the successful rearrangement of both gamma and delta genes before TCR alpha gene rearrangements occur, which lead to deletion of the TCR delta locus and thereby preclude further gamma delta T-cell differentiation. In contrast, successful rearrangement of the TCR beta locus remains compatible with cells becoming either gamma delta or alpha beta T cells.

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