The role of interleukin (IL)2 in intrathymic T cell development is highly controversial, and nothing is known about IL-2R expression on thymocytes of the T cell receptor (TCR) alpha/beta lineage undergoing TCR-driven differentiation events. We analyze here IL-2R alpha and beta mRNA expression in an in vitro system where newly generated rat CD4,8 double positive (DP) thymocytes respond to TCR ligation plus IL-2 (but not to either stimulus alone) with rapid differentiation to functional CD8 single positive T cells (Hünig, T., and R. Mitnacht. 1991. J. Exp. Med. 173:561). TCR ligation induced expression of IL-2R beta (but not alpha) chain mRNA in DP thymocytes. Addition of IL-2 then lead to functional maturation and expression of the IL-2R alpha chain. To investigate if the CD8 T cells generated via this IL-2R beta-driven pathway in vitro correspond to the bulk of CD8 T cells seeding peripheral lymphoid organs in vivo, we compared their phenotype to that of lymph node CD8 T cells. Surprisingly, analysis of CD8 cell surface expression using a novel anti-CD8 monoclonal antibody specific for the alpha/beta heterodimeric isoform, and of CD8 alpha and beta chain mRNA revealed that T cells generated by TCR ligation plus IL-2 resemble thymus-independent rather than thymus-derived CD8 cells in that they express CD8 alpha without beta chains. These findings demonstrate that TCR crosslinking induces functional IL-2R on immature DP rat thymocytes. In addition, they show that at least in vitro, CD8 alpha/alpha T cells are generated from TCR-stimulated DP thymocytes (which express the CD8 alpha/beta in the heterodimeric isoform) along an IL-2-driven pathway of T cell differentiation.

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