The classical minor lymphocyte stimulating (Mls) antigens, which induce a strong primary T cell response in vitro, are closely linked to endogenous copies of mouse mammary tumor viruses (MMTV). Expression of Mls genes leads to clonal deletion of T cell subsets expressing specific T cell receptor (TCR) V beta chains. We describe the isolation and characterization of a new exogenous (infectious) MMTV with biological properties similar to the Mls antigen Mls-1a. In vivo administration of either Mls-1a-expressing B cells or the infectious MMTV (SW) led to an increase of T cells expressing V beta 6 followed by their deletion. Surprisingly, different kinetics of deletion were observed with the exogenous virus depending upon the route of infection. Infection through the mucosa led to a slow deletion of V beta 6+ T cells, whereas deletion was rapid after subcutaneous infection. Sequence analysis of the open reading frames in the 3' long terminal repeat of both this exogenous MMTV (SW) and of Mtv-7 (which is closely linked to Mls-1a) revealed striking similarities, particularly in the COOH terminus, which has been implicated in TCR V beta recognition. The identification of an infectious MMTV with the properties of a strong Mls antigen provides a new, powerful tool to study immunity and tolerance in vivo.

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