Recent studies have shown that maturation of CD4-8- double negative (DN) thymocytes to the CD4+8+ double positive (DP) stage is dependent on expression of the T cell receptor (TCR)-beta polypeptide. The exact mechanism by which the TCR-beta chain regulates this maturation step remains unknown. Previous experiments had suggested that in the presence of some TCR+ thymocytes, additional DN thymocytes not expressing a TCR-beta chain may be recruited to mature to the DP stage. The recent demonstration of an immature TCR-beta-CD3 complex on early thymocytes lead to the alternative hypothesis that signal transduction through an immature TCR-CD3 complex may induce maturation to the DP stage. In the latter case, maturation to the DP stage would depend on the expression of TCR-beta-CD3 in the same cell. We examined these two hypotheses by studying the expression of the intra- and extracellular CD3 epsilon, CD3 zeta, and TCR-beta polypeptides in intrathymic subpopulations during embryogenesis. CD3 epsilon and CD3 zeta were expressed intracellularly 2 and 1 d, respectively, before intracellular expression of the TCR-beta chain, potentially allowing immediate surface expression of an immature TCR-beta-CD3 complex as soon as functional rearrangement of a TCR-beta gene locus has been accomplished. Calcium mobilization could be induced by stimulation with anti-CD3 epsilon mAb as soon as intracellular TCR-beta was detectable, suggesting that a functional TCR-beta-CD3 complex is indeed expressed on the surface of early thymocytes. From day 17 on, most cells were in the DP stage, and over 95% of the DP cells expressed on the TCR-beta chain intracellularly. At day 19 of gestation, extremely low concentrations of TCR-beta chain and CD3 epsilon were detectable on the cell surface of nearly all thymocytes previously thought to be TCR-CD3 negative. These findings strongly support the hypothesis that maturation to the DP stage depends on surface expression of and subsequent signal transduction through an immature TCR-beta-CD3 complex and suggest that maturation to the DP stage by recruitment, if it occurs at all, is of minor relevance.

This content is only available as a PDF.