When sensitive lymphocytes are cultured with the appropriate antigen, lymphoblasts appear after 24–48 hr of incubation and the number of these increases steadily from the 2nd to the 6th or 7th day. Our problem was to discover, at a cellular level, how this increase takes place; whether it is a massive response of many cells, stepwise recruitment of cells into the lymphoblast class, or simply repeated division of a few cells to form clones.
In these experiments lymphocytes were incubated with antigen in culture tubes for 2–4 days and then a few cells, usually less than 200, were transferred to special microchambers for further culture. In these microchambers the cells could be viewed continually with a microscope and their fate recorded over the next 3–5 days by time-lapse cinemicrography. Examination of the film produced in this way showed that lymphoblasts divided and redivided to produce clones of 64 cells or more. It was possible to measure generation times from the film for 301 cells; the majority were between 8 and 13 hr but the range was 7.5–38.0 hr. There was no clear difference between generation times of human lymphocytes stimulated with tuberculin, streptokinase-streptodrnase, extract of the American pokeweed, or in the mixed leukocyte reaction. Similar times were also found for rat cells in the mixed leukocyte reaction.
While these observations show that clonal proliferation does occur and could reasonably account for all the increase of lymphoblasts in lymphocyte cultures, the experiments, because of their design, do not exclude the possibility that other mechanisms such as recruitment may play a role as well, particularly during the first 48 hr after contact between sensitive cells and antigens.