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In the thymus, cortical thymic epithelial cells (cTECs) and medullary thymic epithelial cells support αβT cell development from lymphoid progenitors. For cTECs, expression of a specialized gene signature that includes Cxcl12, Dll4, and Psmb11 enables the cortex to support T lineage commitment and the generation and selection of CD4+CD8+ thymocytes. Although the importance of cTECs in T cell development is well defined, mechanisms that shape the cTEC compartment and regulate its functional specialization are unclear. Using a Cxcl12 DsRed reporter mouse model, we show that changes in Cxcl12 expression reveal a developmentally regulated program of cTEC heterogeneity. Although cTECs are uniformly Cxcl12 DsRed+ during neonatal stages, progression through postnatal life triggers the appearance of Cxcl12 DsRed- cTECs that continue to reside in the cortex alongside their Cxcl12 DsRed+ counterparts. This appearance of Cxcl12 DsRed- cTECs is controlled by maturation of CD4-CD8-, but not CD4+CD8+, thymocytes, demonstrating that stage-specific thymocyte cross-talk controls cTEC heterogeneity. Importantly, although fate-mapping experiments show both Cxcl12 DsRed+ and Cxcl12 DsRed- cTECs share a common Foxn1 + cell origin, RNA sequencing analysis shows Cxcl12 DsRed- cTECs no longer express Foxn1, which results in loss of the FOXN1-dependent cTEC gene signature and may explain the reduced capacity of Cxcl12 DsRed- cTECs for thymocyte interactions. In summary, our study shows that shaping of the cTEC compartment during the life course occurs via stage-specific thymocyte cross-talk, which drives loss of Foxn1 expression and its key target genes, which may then determine the functional competence of the thymic cortex.

Original publication




Journal article


J Immunol

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