In order to analyze the genetic and physiological basis of controls affecting the generation of the repertoire of antigen-binding cells in fetal mice, we have measured the numbers of spleen cells specific for each of four antigens as a function of the total numbers of nucleated and Ig-bearing cells in inbred, hybrid, and random bred fetuses. For each of the two inbred strains BALB/c and CBA/J, the proportion of nucleated cells specific for a given antigen was the same for all individuals of the strain at the 18th day of gestation. The proportion did vary from antigen to antigen, however, and for each antigen the proportion of specific cells observed in CBA/J fetuses was approximately four times that observed in BALB/c fetuses. This difference appeared to be due to a difference between the two strains in the relative size of the repertoire of antigen-binding spleen cells at this stage of development, inasmuch as the frequency of Ig-bearing spleen cells in CBA/J fetuses was likewise approximately four times that observed in BALB/c fetuses.
In random bred Swiss-L fetal mice at the 18th day of gestation, the proportion of cells specific for a given antigen varied significantly from one individual to the next. The ratio of proportions of the two antigens observed was constant from individual to individual, however, and this constant ratio differed significantly from the ratio observed for the same two antigens in fetal BALB/c and CBA/J inbred mice. These data suggest that the ontogeny of the repertoire of antigen-binding cells in fetal mice is subject to at least two independent sets of controls, one affecting the relative size of the repertoire in the spleen, and the other affecting the distribution of antigen-binding specificities within that repertoire.
Analysis of repertoire size and composition in the spleens of hybrid fetuses confirmed the observation that the two parameters are controlled independently, and suggested further that the control of repertoire size in these fetuses is due to the action of one or a few closely-linked autosomal Mendelian genes. These data are consistent with models for the origin of antibody diversity in which the genes coding for the full repertoire of antibodies are generated somatically from a small number of germ-line genes early in development and in the absence of any strong positive or negative selection with respect to antigenic specificity.