Functional characterization of human thymocytes: A limiting dilution analysis of precursors with proliferative and cytolytic activities

M. Lopez-Botet, L. Moretta

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In this report we have analyzed the pool size of human thymocytes capable of proliferating or mediating cytolytic activity. Furthermore, the relationship between these functional capabilities and cell surface antigen expression was studied. Graded numbers of human thymocytes were plated under limiting dilution conditions with irradiated human spleen cells (as a source of feeder cells) and phytohemagglutinin (PHA) in the presence of a saturating concentration of interleukin 2. Cell proliferation, which was evaluated after 20 days of culture, was usually compared with the proliferation of peripheral blood T cell populations cultured under identical conditions. Although essentially all peripheral blood T cells were clonogenic, only 3 to 8% of thymocytes proliferated. Of proliferating microcultures, 48 to 86% showed cytolytic activity in a PHA-dependent assay, wheeas 26 to 83% killed the NK-sensitive target cell K-562 in the absence of added lectin. Similar frequency analysis of functional precursors was performed on thymocyte subsets selected according to their expression of T3, T6, T4, and T8 antigens. All precursors of proliferating cells (PTL-P) were found in the T3+ subset. From the comparison of the percentages of total thymocytes capable of proliferation and the proportion of cells brightly stained with anti-T3 antibody, it was evident that only a fraction of T3+ cells was clonogenic. Although the large majority of PTL-P was found in the T6- subpopulation, a small fraction of functional precursors was detected in the T6+ subset. When thymocytes were fractionated according to T4 or T8 antigen expression, it was found that 80 to 90% of the recovered PTL-P were confined to the T4+ fraction, whereas only 20 to 28% of the recovered PTL-P were present in the T8+ subset. Analysis of the precursors of cytolytic T lymphocytes (CTL-P) in thymocyte populations fractionated according to T4 or T8 antigen expression showed that 70 to 90% of the recovered CTL-P were found in the T4+ fraction and 17 to 30% were in the T8+ subset. Because approximately 80% of proliferating T4+ thymocytes had CTL activity (as compared with + lymphocytes), it appears that the subset distribution of thymic CTL-P differs from that of peripheral blood T cells.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2299-2304
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Immunology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1985

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology


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