Differentiation of most T lymphocytes occurs within the thymus and is characterized by variable expression of CD4/CD8 coreceptor molecules, increased surface density of T cell antigen receptor (TCR) alpha beta proteins, and decreased expression of glycan chains recognized by the galactose-specific lectin peanut agglutinin (PNA). Although appreciated for several decades that PNA agglutination is useful for the physical separation of immature and mature thymocyte sub-populations, the identity of specific PNA-binding glycoproteins expressed on immature thymocytes remains to be determined. In the current report, we studied the expression of PNA-specific glycans on immature and mature T cells and used lectin affinity chromatography and immunoprecipitation techniques to characterize PNA-binding glycoproteins on thymocytes. Our data demonstrate that PNA-specific glycans are localized on a relatively small subset of thymocyte surface proteins, several of which were specifically identified, including CD43, CD45, and suprisingly, CD8 molecules. CD8 alpha and CD8 alpha' proteins bound to PNA in the absence of CD8 beta expression showing that O-glycans on CD8 beta glycoproteins are not necessary for PNA binding and that glycosylation of CD8 alpha and CD8 alpha' proteins proceeds effectively in the absence of CD8 beta. Finally, we demonstrate that PNA binding of CD8 is developmentally regulated by sialic acid addition as CD8 proteins from mature T cells bound to PNA only after sialidase treatment. These studies identify CD8 as a PNA receptor molecule on immature thymocytes and show that PNA binding of CD8 on immature and mature T cells is developmentally regulated by sialic acid modification.

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