In murine T cell development, early thymocytes that productively rearrange the T cell receptor (TCR) beta locus are selected to continue maturation, before TCR alpha expression, by means of a pre-TCR alpha- (pT alpha-) TCR beta heterodimer (pre-TCR). The aim of this study was to identify equivalent stages in human thymocyte development. We show here that variable-diversity-joining region TCR beta rearrangement and the expression of full-length TCR beta transcripts have been initiated in some immature thymocytes at the TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8- stage, and become common in a downstream subset of TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8+ thymocytes that is highly enriched in large cycling cells. TCR beta chain expression was hardly detected in TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8- thymocytes, whereas cytoplasmic TCR beta chain was found in virtually all TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8+ blasts. In addition, a TCR beta complex distinct from the mature TCR alpha/beta heterodimer was immunoprecipitated only from the latter subset. cDNA derived from TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8+ blasts allowed us to identify and clone the gene encoding the human pT alpha chain, and to examine its expression at different stages of thymocyte development. Our results show that high pT alpha transcription occurs only in CD4+CD8- and CD4+CD8+ TCR alpha/beta- thymocytes, whereas it is weaker in earlier and later stages of development. Based on these results, we propose that the transition from TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8- to TCR alpha/beta- CD4+CD8+ thymocytes represents a critical developmental stage at which the successful expression of TCR beta promotes the clonal expansion and further maturation of human thymocytes, independent of TCR alpha.

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