Certain antigens such as polymerized flagellin are capable of producing relatively normal antibody levels in thymectomized mice, whereas others, including heterologous erythrocytes require the presence of T cells in a helper capacity. The mechanism of thymus-independent antibody production was investigated by comparing the primary IgM responses of spleen cells from ATXBM, XBM, and normal mice to various physical forms of the flagellar antigens of Salmonella adelaide in vitro. No reduction in antibody-forming cell levels to polymerized flagellin over a wide dose range was observed in ATXBM cultures, although the same spleen cells did not respond to an optimal dose of sheep red cells. In contrast, when flagellar determinants were presented in a monomeric form or as flagellin-coated donkey red cells, a highly significant difference was observed between the antibody responses of spleen cells from ATXBM mice and XBM or normal controls. The results suggested that the requirement for T cells in antibody production is not a property of specific antigenic determinants, but depends on the mode of antigenic presentation.
The validity of this conclusion was confirmed by using another antigenic determinant (DNP) coupled either to the thymus-independent carrier, POL, or to the thymus-dependent carrier, DRC. Spleen cells from XBM mice produced comparable AFC levels to both forms of DNP, but the results from ATXBM cultures showed a marked difference. The anti-DNP response to DNP-DRC was greatly reduced compared to controls, whereas that to DNP-POL was normal even after prolonged thoracic duct drainage of the ATXBM donors and pretreatment of their spleen cells with anti-θ-serum and complement. The data presented here imply that the role of T cells in humoral immunity is the presentation of antigen to B cells in such a manner as to initiate optimal antibody synthesis.