Cortical thymocytes from adult mice, separated on the basis of coexpression of CD4 and CD8 or of binding of high levels of peanut agglutinin (PNA), were subdivided according to the level of expression of the T cell receptor (TCR)-CD3 complex. The incidence of dividing cells in the resultant subpopulations was determined by DNA staining. Precursor-product relationships and the timing of TCR-CD3 acquisition were studied using continuous in vivo [3H]TdR labeling and radioautography. The extent of intrathymic selection for TCR specificity in the subpopulations was determined from the incidence of cells bearing V beta 6 or V beta 17a in different mouse strains. The majority of dividing CD4+8+ blast cells expressed extremely low levels of TCR-CD3, indicating that TCR expression and specificity selection generally occurred after division ceased. The [3H]TdR-labeling studies indicated that postdivision TCR expression was rapid, and that those nondividing cortical thymocytes which had not expressed significant levels of TCR by day 1, remained extremely low or negative for their entire 3.6-d lifespan. Small cortical thymocytes which expressed moderate levels of TCR-CD3, were predominantly an unselected population with a lifespan of 3.8 d. A small subgroup of CD4+8+ PNA+ cortical thymocytes expressing high levels of TCR-CD3 was identified as a nondividing intermediate between the small cortical thymocytes expressing moderate levels of TCR and mature medullary thymocytes. These intermediates showed a 1-d lag in [3H]TdR labeling, then a 3.4-d transit time. The cell flux through this intermediate subpopulation was approximately 10(6) cells/d, similar to the rate of turnover of mature thymocytes; thus, although only 3-4% of thymocytes progressed to this intermediate state, once reaching it most then progressed to full maturity. In accordance with this, the incidence of the V beta selection markers within the intermediate subpopulation indicated that both positive and negative selection had already occurred. Selection for TCR specificity in the systems studied appeared to take place among CD4+8+ thymocytes expressing intermediate levels of TCR.

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