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Concept: Central tolerance


Self-nonself discrimination plays a key role in inducing a productive immunity and in preventing autoimmune reactions. Central tolerance within the thymus and peripheral tolerance in peripheral lymphoid organs lead to immunologic nonresponsiveness against self-components. The central tolerance represents the mechanism by which T cells binding with high avidity to self-antigens are eliminated through the so-called negative selection. Thymic medullary epithelial cells and medullary dendritic cells play a key role in this process, through the expression of a large number of tissue-specific self-antigens involving the transcription factor autoimmune regulator (AIRE). Mutations of AIRE result in autoimmune polyendocrinopathy candidiasis ectodermal dystrophy, a rare autosomal recessive disease (OMIM 240300), which is the paradigm of a genetically determined failure of central tolerance and autoimmunity. This review focuses on recent advances in the molecular mechanisms of central tolerance, their alterations and clinical implication.

Concepts: Immune system, DNA, Genetics, Gene expression, Lymph node, Immunology, Thymus, Central tolerance


During αβT cell development, the thymus medulla represents an essential microenvironment for T cell tolerance. This functional specialization is attributed to its typical organized topology consisting of a branching structure that contains medullary thymic epithelial cell (mTEC) networks to support negative selection and Foxp3(+) T-regulatory cell (T-reg) development. Here, by performing TEC-specific deletion of the thymus medulla regulator lymphotoxin β receptor (LTβR), we show that thymic tolerance mechanisms operate independently of LTβR-mediated mTEC development and organization. Consistent with this, mTECs continue to express Fezf2 and Aire, regulators of intrathymic self-antigens, and support T-reg development despite loss of LTβR-mediated medulla organogenesis. Moreover, we demonstrate that LTβR controls thymic tolerance by regulating the frequency and makeup of intrathymic dendritic cells (DCs) required for effective thymocyte negative selection. In all, our study demonstrates that thymus medulla specialization for thymic tolerance segregates from medulla organogenesis and instead involves LTβR-mediated regulation of the thymic DC pool.

Concepts: Immune system, B cell, T cell, T cells, Major histocompatibility complex, Regulation, Thymus, Central tolerance


Thymic antigen-presenting cells (APCs) such as dendritic cells and medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) use distinct strategies of self-antigen expression and presentation to mediate central tolerance. The thymus also harbors B cells; whether they also display unique tolerogenic features and how they genealogically relate to peripheral B cells is unclear. Here, we found that Aire is expressed in thymic but not peripheral B cells. Aire expression in thymic B cells coincided with major histocompatibility class II (MHCII) and CD80 upregulation and immunoglobulin class-switching. These features were recapitulated upon immigration of naive peripheral B cells into the thymus, whereby this intrathymic licensing required CD40 signaling in the context of cognate interactions with autoreactive CD4(+) thymocytes. Moreover, a licensing-dependent neo-antigen selectively upregulated in immigrating B cells mediated negative selection through direct presentation. Thus, autoreactivity within the nascent T cell repertoire fuels a feed forward loop that endows thymic B cells with tolerogenic features.

Concepts: Immune system, Gene expression, B cell, Adaptive immune system, T cell, Major histocompatibility complex, Thymus, Central tolerance


In the thymus, high-affinity, self-reactive thymocytes are eliminated from the pool of developing T cells, generating central tolerance. Here, we investigate how developing T cells measure self-antigen affinity. We show that very few CD4 or CD8 coreceptor molecules are coupled with the signal-initiating kinase, Lck. To initiate signaling, an antigen-engaged T cell receptor (TCR) scans multiple coreceptor molecules to find one that is coupled to Lck; this is the first and rate-limiting step in a kinetic proofreading chain of events that eventually leads to TCR triggering and negative selection. MHCII-restricted TCRs require a shorter antigen dwell time (0.2 s) to initiate negative selection compared to MHCI-restricted TCRs (0.9 s) because more CD4 coreceptors are Lck-loaded compared to CD8. We generated a model (Lck come&stay/signal duration) that accurately predicts the observed differences in antigen dwell-time thresholds used by MHCI- and MHCII-restricted thymocytes to initiate negative selection and generate self-tolerance.

Concepts: Immune system, Protein, T cell, Major histocompatibility complex, T cell receptor, Lck, Thymus, Central tolerance


Within the thymus, two major thymic epithelial cell (TEC) subsets-cortical and medullary TECs-provide unique structural and functional niches for T cell development and establishment of central tolerance. Both lineages are believed to originate from a common progenitor cell, yet the cellular and molecular identity of these bipotent TEC progenitors/stem cells remains ill defined. Here we identify rare stromal cells in the murine adult thymus, which under low-attachment conditions formed spheres (termed “thymospheres”). These thymosphere-forming cells (TSFCs) displayed the stemness features of being slow cycling, self-renewing, and bipotent. TSFCs could be significantly enriched based on their distinct surface antigen phenotype. The FoxN1 transcription factor was dispensable for TSFCs maintenance in situ and for commitment to the medullary and cortical TEC lineages. In summary, this study presents the characterization of the adult thymic epithelial stem cells and demonstrates the dispensability of FoxN1 function for their stemness.

Concepts: Immune system, DNA, Protein, Gene, Developmental biology, Cell biology, Thymus, Central tolerance


In the thymus, medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTEC) determine the fate of newly selected CD4+ and CD8+ single positive (SP) thymocytes. For example, mTEC expression of Aire controls intrathymic self-antigen availability for negative selection. Interestingly, alterations in both Foxp3+ Regulatory T-cells (T-Reg) and conventional SP thymocytes in Aire-/- mice suggest additional, yet poorly understood, roles for Aire during intrathymic T-cell development. To examine this, we analysed thymocytes from Aire-/- mice using Rag2GFP and Foxp3 expression, and a recently described CD69/MHCI subset definition of post-selection CD4+ conventional thymocytes. We show that while Aire is dispensable for de novo generation of conventional αβT-cells, it plays a key role in controlling the intrathymic T-Reg pool size. Surprisingly, this decline in intrathymic T-Reg in Aire-/- mice maps to a reduction in mature recirculating Rag2GFP- T-Reg that express CCR6 and re-enter the thymus from the periphery. Furthermore, we show mTEC expression of the CCR6 ligand CCL20 is reduced in Aire-/- mice, and that CCR6 is required for T-Reg recirculation back to the thymus. Collectively, our study re-defines requirements for late stage intrathymic αβT-cell development, and demonstrates that Aire controls a CCR6-CCL20 axis that determines the developmental makeup of the intrathymic T-Reg pool. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: B cell, T cell, Major histocompatibility complex, Thymus, All rights reserved, Copyright, Thymocyte, Central tolerance


Autoimmunity is prevented by the function of the autoimmune regulator [AIRE (Aire in mice)], which promotes the expression of a wide variety of tissue-restricted antigens (TRAs) from medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) and from a subset of peripheral antigen-presenting cells (APCs). We examined the effect of additive expression of human AIRE (huAIRE) in a model of autoimmune diabetes in NOD mice. Unexpectedly, we observed that mice expressing augmented AIRE/Aire developed muscle-specific autoimmunity associated with incomplete maturation of mTECs together with impaired expression of Aire-dependent TRAs. This led to failure of deletion of autoreactive T cells together with dramatically reduced production of regulatory T cells in the thymus. In peripheral APCs, expression of costimulatory molecules was augmented. We suggest that levels of Aire expression need to be tightly controlled for maintenance of immunological tolerance. Our results also highlight the importance of coordinated action between central tolerance and peripheral tolerance under the common control of Aire.

Concepts: Immune system, DNA, Immunology, Major histocompatibility complex, Thymus, Myasthenia gravis, Autoimmunity, Central tolerance


The establishment of T cell central tolerance critically relies on the development and maintenance of the medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs). Disrupted signaling of lymphotoxin beta receptor (LTβR) results in dramatically reduced mTEC population. However, whether LTβR directly or indirectly control mTECs remains undetermined; how LTβR controls this process also remain unclear. In this study, by utilizing K14-Cre × Ltbr(fl/fl) conditional knockout (cKO) mice, we show that epithelial intrinsic LTβR was essential for the mTEC development postnatally. Mechanistically, LTβR did not directly impact the proliferation or survival of mTECs; the maturation of mTECs from MHC-II(lo) to MHC-II(hi) stage was also unaltered in the absence of LTβR; interestingly, the number of mTEC progenitors (Cld3,4(hi)SSEA-1(+)) was found significantly reduced in LTβR cKO mice at the neonatal stage, but not at E18.5. Consequently, epithelial deficiency of LTβR resulted in significant defect of thymic negative selection as demonstrated using OT-I and RIP-OVA transgenic mouse system. In summary, our study clarifies the epithelial intrinsic role of LTβR on mTEC development and function; more importantly, it reveals a previously unrecognized function of LTβR on the control of the size of mTEC progenitor population.

Concepts: Protein, Gene, Gene expression, Epithelium, Thymus, Mouse, The Establishment, Central tolerance


In the thymus, antigen presenting cells (APCs) namely, medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) and thymic dendritic cells (tDCs) regulate T cell tolerance through elimination of autoreactive T cells and production of thymic T regulatory (tTreg) cells. How the different APCs in the thymus share the burden of tolerazing the emerging T cell repertoire remains unclear. For example, while mutations that inhibit mTEC development or function associate with peripheral autoimmunity, the role of tDCs in organ-specific autoimmunity and tTreg cell production remains controversial. In this report we used mice depleted of mTECs and/or CD8α(+) DCs, to examine the contributions of these cell populations in thymic tolerance. We found that while mice depleted of CD8α(+) DCs or mTECs were normal or developed liver inflammation respectively, combined depletion of mTECs and CD8α(+) DCs resulted in overt peripheral autoimmunity. The autoimmune manifestations in mice depleted of both mTECs and CD8α(+) cDCs associated with increased percentages of CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells in the thymus. In contrast, while mTEC depletion resulted in reduced percentages of tTreg cells, no additional effect was observed when CD8α(+) DCs were also depleted. These results reveal that: 1) mTECs and CD8α(+) DCs cooperatively safeguard against peripheral autoimmunity through thymic T cell deletion; 2) CD8α(+) DCs are dispensable for tTreg cell production, whereas mTECs play a non-redundant role in this process; 3) mTECs and CD8α(+) DCs make unique contributions to tolerance induction that cannot be compensated for by other thymic APCs such as migratory SIRPα(+) or plasmacytoid DCs.

Concepts: Immune system, B cell, Adaptive immune system, T cell, T cells, Major histocompatibility complex, Thymus, Central tolerance


Dendritic cells (DCs) are instrumental in the initiation of T cell responses, but how thymic and peripheral tolerogenic DCs differ globally from Toll-like receptor (TLR)-induced immunogenic DCs remains unclear. Here, we show that thymic XCR1(+) DCs undergo a high rate of maturation, accompanied by profound gene-expression changes that are essential for central tolerance and also happen in germ-free mice. Those changes largely overlap those occurring during tolerogenic and, more unexpectedly, TLR-induced maturation of peripheral XCR1(+) DCs, arguing against the commonly held view that tolerogenic DCs undergo incomplete maturation. Interferon-stimulated gene (ISG) expression was among the few discriminators of immunogenic and tolerogenic XCR1(+) DCs. Tolerogenic XCR1(+) thymic DCs were, however, unique in expressing ISGs known to restrain virus replication. Therefore, a broad functional convergence characterizes tolerogenic and immunogenic XCR1(+) DC maturation in the thymus and periphery, maximizing antigen presentation and signal delivery to developing and to conventional and regulatory mature T cells.

Concepts: AIDS, Immune system, Protein, Toll-like receptor, Adaptive immune system, Dendritic cell, Thymus, Central tolerance