We previously demonstrated selective enrichment of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II-specific autoreactive T cells in a subset of mouse CD4+ thymocytes. Here we show that a significant fraction of these autoreactive cells in the normal adult thymus expresses NK1.1 and high levels of Ly-6C and also exhibits flexibility in MHC restriction. In normal mice, this NK1.1+Ly-6Chi subfraction accounts for 10-50% of the CD4+ autoreactive subset and is enriched for MHC class II-restricted autoreactive cells as determined by mixed leukocyte reaction frequency analysis, similar to NK1.1-Ly-6C-CD4+ autoreactive cells. In contrast, in the thymus of class II-deficient littermate mice, NK1.1+Ly-6Chi cells account for most of the mature heat stable antigen (HSA)-CD4+ fraction and exhibit MHC-restricted non-class II autoreactivity. Thus, NK1.1+Ly-6ChiCD4+ T cells show flexibility in MHC class restriction, but their autoreactivity remains MHC dependent.

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