Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) is a bacterial superantigen that binds to major histocompatibility complex class II molecules and selectively interacts with T cells that bear certain T cell receptor (TCR) V beta domains. Administration of SEB in adult mice results in initial proliferation of V beta 8+ T cells followed by a state of unresponsiveness resulting from a combination of clonal deletion and clonal anergy in the SEB-reactive population. At this time, it is unclear what relationship exists between the T cells that have proliferated and those that have been deleted or have become anergic. Here we show that only a fraction of the potentially reactive V beta 8+ T cells proliferate in response to SEB in vivo, and that all the cells that have proliferated eventually undergo apoptosis. Virtually no apoptosis can be detected in the nonproliferating V beta 8+ T cells. These data demonstrate a causal relationship between proliferation and apoptosis in response to SEB in vivo, and they further indicate that T cells bearing the same TCR V beta segment can respond differently to the same superantigen. The implications of this differential responsiveness in terms of activation and tolerance are discussed.

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