The differentiation potential of putative intermediates between CD4+8+ thymocytes and mature T cells has been examined. Such intermediate populations were sorted, in parallel with CD4+8+ thymocytes, from three types of C57BL/6 mice: major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II-deficient mice, mice transgenic for an alpha/beta T cell receptor (TCR) restricted by class I MHC and normal mice. The sorted populations were then transferred into the thymus of nonirradiated C57BL/Ka mice differing in Thy 1 allotype, and the progeny of the transferred cells were analyzed 2 d later. Surprisingly, with all three types of donor mice, a major proportion of the CD4+8intTCRint-derived progeny were found to be CD4-8+TCRhi cells, thus delineating a new alternative pathway for development of the CD8 lineage. In contrast, the transfer of CD4int8+TCRint thymocytes produced CD4-8+TCRhi cells but no significant proportion of CD4+8-TCRhi cells, suggesting that there is no equivalent alternative pathway for the CD4 lineage. The results negate some of the evidence for a stochastic/selective model of lineage commitment, and point to an asymmetry in the steps leading to CD4-8+ versus CD4+8- T cells.

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