The specificity of the T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire for foreign peptide bound to self-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules is determined in large part by positive and negative selection processes in the thymus, yet the mechanisms of these selection events remain unknown. Using in vitro organ culture of thymi isolated from mice transgenic for a TCR-alpha/beta specific for cytochrome c peptide bound to I-Ek, we analyzed the developmental timing of negative selection (deletion). On the basis of the experiments described below, we conclude that all CD4+8+ thymocytes, and only CD4+8+ thymocytes, are susceptible to negative selection mediated by the cytochrome c peptide antigen. First, we found that deletion of thymocytes resulting from addition of the cytochrome c peptide to the thymic organ cultures can occur at the earliest stage of TCR, CD4, and CD8 coexpression. Second, we found that CD4+8+ thymocytes isolated from positively selecting or nonselecting MHC haplotypes were equally efficiently deleted in vitro, suggesting that positive selection is not a prerequisite for deletion. Third, we examined the effects of TCR/ligand avidity on the developmental timing of deletion by varying the concentration of cytochrome c peptide added to the organ cultures. We detected deletion only at the CD4+8+ stage: intermediate concentrations of peptide that resulted in partial deletion of CD4+8+ cells did not eliminate the appearance of mature CD4+8- cells. Finally, we found that CD4+8- thymocytes were resistant to deletion as well as activation by peptide antigen added to the intact organ cultures. Nevertheless, the CD4+8- thymocytes isolated from the peptide-treated organ cultures responded vigorously to peptide presented by spleen cells in vitro. Thus, the T cells were tolerant of (but not anergized by) self-antigen encountered in thymic organ culture. Together, these results indicate that thymocytes susceptible to negative selection are not developmentally distinct from those susceptible to positive selection, and further, that the thymic microenvironment plays a role in regulating the outcome of TCR/ligand interactions.

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