We demonstrate that mouse intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes (IEL) can be divided into subsets based on the differential expression of functional T cell receptor alpha/beta (TCR-alpha/beta) signaling complexes. Two subsets, CD4+ 8 alpha + beta - and CD8 alpha + beta -, are refractory to stimulation with anti-TCR-alpha/beta and contain high frequencies of potentially self-reactive cells. In contrast, the CD4+ and CD8 alpha + beta + IEL subsets are responsive to anti-TCR-alpha/beta and depleted of potentially self-reactive cells. The analysis of fetal liver radiation chimeras using adult thymectomized recipients demonstrates that the four TCR-alpha/beta + IEL subsets are generated in normal numbers in the absence of the thymus. Moreover, expression of the major histocompatibility complex class II-encoded I-E molecule and Mls1a in the gut of the athymic host results in the negative selection of potentially self-reactive T cells expressing V beta 11 and V beta 6, respectively, from those IEL subsets that express functional TCR-alpha/beta signaling complexes. Neither the spleen nor the Peyer's patches of athymic recipients contain T cells of donor origin. In contrast, normal numbers of phenotypically and functionally mature CD4+ and CD8 alpha + beta + T cells of donor origin are found in the lamina propria of chimeric animals. The phenotypic analysis of lymphocytes obtained from Ly5 congenic parabionts reveals that peripheral T cells migrate rapidly to the Peyer's patches and lamina propria, but not to the intestinal epithelium. Taken together, these results demonstrate that the intestinal epithelium is a thymus-independent site of T lymphopoiesis, where selection of the T cell repertoire involves the deletion of potentially self-reactive cells in situ. Moreover, the appearance of donor-derived, phenotypically mature T cells, exclusively in the lamina propria of athymic radiation chimeras, suggests that mature IEL expressing functional TCR-alpha/beta migrate to this site.

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