Transgenic mice expressing self major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I (H-2Kb) antigen solely in lymphoid cell lineages do not acquire tolerance to H-2Kb expressed on skin grafts. H-2Kb-specific cytotoxic T cell responses were completely abrogated in these mice, even after they had rejected skin grafts. Moreover, thymocytes expressing T cell receptors that confer H-2Kb reactivity on cytotoxic CD8+ T cells were eliminated. The ability to reject grafts correlated with the presence of a novel population of H-2Kb-reactive CD4+ T cells. At least some of these CD4+ T cells recognize peptides derived from H-2Kb by processing. We conclude that self MHC I antigens induce tolerance in the CD8 T cell compartment via negative selection when expressed exclusively by lymphoid cells. In contrast, tolerance to MHC class II-restricted self peptides derived by processing of such MHC I antigens is not induced in the CD4 T cell compartment. This suggests that effective transfer of self antigens from lymphoid cells to MHC II-positive cells that can process and present them as self peptides to thymocytes or CD4+ T cells does not take place in vivo. Thus, sequestration of self antigens and MHC II molecules in distinct cell types in the thymic microenvironment allows potentially autoreactive and functionally competent CD4+ T cells that recognize cryptic MHC II-restricted self peptides to mature into the peripheral T cell repertoire under normal physiological circumstances.

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