B lymphocytes recognize antigen through membrane-bound antigen-receptors, membrane IgM and IgD (mIgM and mIgD). Binding to foreign antigens initiates a cascade of biochemical events that lead to activation and differentiation. In contrast, binding to self-antigens leads to death or to inactivation. It is commonly believed that the B cells acquire the ability to discriminate between self and nonself in the early phases of development. We report here that immature B cells, which have just emerged from the mIgM(neg), B220(pos) pool, are not deleted upon binding of self-antigen. In vivo, developing B cells become sensitive to tolerance induction in a relatively late window of differentiation, when they are in transition from the immature (HSA(bright), B220(dull)) to the mature (HSA(dull), B220(bright)) stage. In the transitional B cells, early markers of differentiation such as Pgp1 (CD44) and ThB reach the highest level of expression, while the expression of CD23 and mIgD, late markers of differentiation, and expression of class II MHC, progressively increases. Most of the transitional B cells, but only few of the mature and of the immature B cells, express the fas antigen, while mature B cells, but not immature and transitional B cells, express bcl-2 protein. mIgM is present in low amounts in immature B cells, reaches the highest level of expression in transitional B cells and is down-regulated in mature resting B cells, where it is coexpressed with mIgD. The high expression of mIgM, the presence of the fas antigen and the absence of bcl-2 protein is compatible with the high sensitivity of transitional B cells to negative selection. In vitro, immature B cells die rapidly by apoptosis after cross-linking of mIgM. This result, combined with the resistance of immature B cells to elimination in vivo, suggests that early in development the stroma cell microenvironment modulates signals transduced through mIgM. The functional and phenotypic division of IgM(pos) bone marrow B cells in three compartments not only allows to define the target population of physiological processes like negative selection, but will also be a helpful tool for an accurate description of possible developmental blocks in mutant mice.
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