The antigen-specific receptors of T and B lymphocytes are generated by somatic recombination between noncontiguous gene segments encoding the variable portions of these molecules. The semirandom nature of this process, while desirable for the generation of diversity, has been thought to exact a high price in terms of sterile (out-of-frame) products. Historically, the majority of T lymphocytes generated in mammals were thought to be useless, either because they generated such sterile rearrangements or because the receptors generated did not appropriately recognize self-molecules (i.e., positive and negative selection). In the studies described here, we characterize the onset of T cell receptor (TCR) alpha and beta chain gene rearrangements and quantitate their progression throughout T cell development. The results show that T cell production efficiency is enhanced through (a) rearrangement of TCR-beta chain genes early during T cell development, with selective expansion of those cells possessing in-frame rearrangements; (b) deletion of sterile rearrangements at the TCR-alpha chain locus through ordered (proximal to distal) sequential recombination; and (c) modification of nonselectable alpha/beta heterodimer specificities through generation and expression of new TCR-alpha chains. In addition, we demonstrate strict correlations between successful TCR-beta gene rearrangement, the onset of TCR-alpha gene rearrangement, rapid cell division, and programmed cell death, which together serve to maintain cell turnover and homeostasis during T cell development.

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