Density distribution analysis in continuous gradients of albumin has been used to study the development of cytotoxic lymphocytes (CL), to separate and characterize the progenitors of CL, and to determine their relationship to subpopulations of T cells.
CL progenitors in the thymus were a homogeneous, medium-density population, distinct from the typical, dense, thymus small-lymphocyte. Activity seemed to be associated with one minor subpopulation of cells with surface antigenic properties characteristic of peripheral T cells (high levels of H-2 antigen, low levels of θ-antigen). CL progenitors in the spleen differed from those in the thymus and normally had the high buoyant density of typical small T lymphocytes. In states of antigenic stimulation, some lighter-density CL progenitors were found in the spleen.
The buoyant density of the CL population developing in the spleens of immunized animals showed progressive changes with time. Early, "immature" CL had the light-density characteristics of large, activated lymphocytes. As the response developed, the density of the CL population increased, and finally approached that of CL progenitors and of typical small lymphocytes.
The data suggest that density subpopulations of T cells represent stages in the development of immunocompetent cells. Possible differentiation pathways of T lymphocytes in the thymus and in the spleen are discussed.