The thymus gland is important for the formation of competent T lymphocytes. However, there is long-standing evidence that greater than 95% of newly formed thymocytes do not emigrate to peripheral lymphoid tissues but instead die locally. We have identified a rapid and selective pathway for thymocyte turnover in vitro. The mechanism entails binding, uptake, and digestion by macrophages. The susceptible cells are a subpopulation of double-positive thymocytes. These thymocytes can be enriched by virtue of their high buoyant density in Percoll and prove to have low levels of surface CD3 and little or no surface TCR. However TCR-alpha and -beta genes have undergone rearrangement, and full length alpha and beta transcripts are abundant. Therefore many double-positive cells rearrange and express TCR genes but do not have normal levels of TCR on the cell surface. We propose that thymocytes that undergo high turnover in situ are unable to form receptors that can be selected by MHC molecules in the thymus, and that these cells are recognized and cleared by the macrophage.

This content is only available as a PDF.