Antigen-binding diversity is generated by site-specific V(D)J recombination of the T cell receptor (TCR) and immunoglobulin loci in lymphocyte precursors. Coordinate expression of two structurally distinct recombinase activating genes, RAG-1 and RAG-2, is necessary for activation of site-specific V(D)J recombination. In mice bearing targeted disruptions of either the RAG-1 or RAG-2 genes, T and B lymphocyte development is arrested at the CD4-8- double negative (DN) thymocyte or B220+/CD43+ pro-B cell stage. Development of CD4+CD8+ double positive (DP) thymocytes is restored by expression of a functionally rearranged TCR beta transgene, suggesting that TCR beta expression is critical for this developmental transition. We have found that treatment of adult or newborn RAG-deficient mice with a single sublethal dose of gamma-irradiation rescues the DN to DP transition in early thymocytes, and this is accompanied by a dramatic increase in thymus cellularity. In contrast to the observed induction of thymocyte maturation, there was no phenotypic or functional evidence of coincident B lymphocyte development in irradiated RAG-deficient mice. Interestingly, maturation of DP thymocytes occurred without expression of TCR beta protein in the cytoplasm or on the cell surface. These results suggest an in vivo pathway for DP thymocyte development which is TCR beta chain independent.

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