A new, numerically minute population of cells representing the earliest T precursor cells in the adult mouse thymus has recently been isolated. This population has been shown to be similar to bone marrow hemopoietic stem cells in surface antigenic phenotype and to express moderate levels of CD4. We now show, by fluorescence-activated cell sorting and intrathymic transfer to irradiated mice, that this apparently homogeneous population differs from multipotent stem cells in expressing the surface stem cell antigen 2 (Sca-2), that it differs from most early B lineage cells in lacking B220 and class II major histocompatibility complex expression, and that it binds rhodamine 123 like an activated rather than a quiescent cell. Irradiated recipient mice differing at the Ly 5 locus were used to compare the developmental potential of these early intrathymic precursors with bone marrow stem cells. Only T lineage product cells were detected when the intrathymic precursor population was transferred back into an irradiated thymus. However, when the intrathymic precursor population was transferred intravenously, it displayed the capacity to develop into both B and T lymphoid cells in recipient bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes, but no donor-derived myeloid cells were detected. The absence of myeloid and erythroid precursor activity was confirmed by showing that the intrathymic precursor population was unable to develop into myeloid or erythroid spleen colonies on intravenous transfer or to form colonies in an agar culture. These findings indicate that this earliest intrathymic precursor population has become restricted (or strongly biased) to lymphoid lineage development, but not exclusively to T lymphocytes.

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