Bipotential T/natural killer (NK) progenitor cells are destined to differentiate mainly into T cell receptor (TCR) alpha beta and TCR gamma delta cells in a thymic microenvironment, whereas extrathymically they selectively develop into NK cells. The exact environmental conditions that are required for differentiation into these three leukocyte populations are largely unknown. In this report, we have investigated and compared the effect of interleukin (IL)-15 and IL-2 in this process. The IL-15 receptor is composed of the gamma and beta chains of the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R gamma and IL-2R beta) and of a specific alpha chain (IL-15R alpha). Here, it is shown that IL-15 mRNA is mainly expressed in thymic epithelial stromal cells, whereas IL-2 mRNA is exclusively expressed in thymocytes. IL-2R beta-expressing cells were present in the fetal thymus with a CD25-CD44+Fc gamma R+HSA-/low TCR- phenotype, which is characteristic of progenitor cells. These cells also expressed IL-15R alpha messenger RNA. Sorted IL-2R beta + TCR- cells differentiated into TCR alpha beta and TCR gamma delta cells after transfer to alymphoid thymic lobes, whereas culture of the same sorted cells in cell suspension in the presence of IL-15 resulted in the generation of functional NK cells. This shows that IL-2R beta +TCR- cells of the fetal thymus contain bipotential T/NK progenitors. Addition of low concentrations of IL-15 to fetal thymic organ culture (FTOC) resulted in an increase of all T cell subpopulations. The largest expansion occurred in the TCR gamma delta compartment. In contrast, low concentrations of IL-2 did not result in a higher total cell number and did not induce outgrowth of TCR gamma delta cells. High concentrations of IL-15 blocked TCR alpha beta development and shifted differentiation towards NK cells. Differentiation towards TCR gamma delta cells still proceeded. High concentrations of IL-2 similarly induced development into NK cells, but the cell number was fourfold lower than in IL-15 cultures. Importantly, blocking of IL-2R alpha in IL-2-treated FTOC resulted in a drastic increase in cell number, indicating that IL-2R alpha negatively regulates cell expansion. Collectively, these experiments provide direct evidence that IL-15 and IL-2 differentially affect the differentiation of bipotential T/NK progenitors.

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