In order to clarify the cellular events that precede the onset of immunological competence in the mouse, we have characterized and quantitated the lymphoid cells of the spleen as a function of age. Our results show that T cells and B cells both appeared in the spleens of Swiss-L mice as early as the 15th-16th day of gestation. Antigen-binding cells specific for each of three different antigens were also first detected during this same 24 h interval. The B cells and three varieties of antigen-binding cells increased in number rapidly and in parallel until about 1 wk after birth. The T cells, which were more numerous than B cells at first, increased in number somewhat more slowly.
Coincident with the onset of response to antigen, there was a further increase in B cell numbers and a decrease in the T cell to B cell ratio. The capacity to respond to antigen by cellular proliferation and synthesis of antibody did not arise until about 2 wk after birth although there were no quantitative changes in the total numbers of T cells, B cells, and antigen-binding cells between 1 and 2 wk of age. Some qualitative change, such as the functional maturation of an antigen-reactive cell, may be required during this interval for the onset of this immunological response. Although the numbers of antigen-binding cells present in fetuses and young animals were smaller than in adults, we have as yet been unable to detect any restriction in the variety of specificities that can be expressed in fetuses, either in the kinds of antigens bound or in the range of avidities with which a single antigen is bound.