Step-wise dilution of chicken thymus cell suspensions has been used to sequentially reveal suppressor, effector, and helper cells in these suspensions. The cells were tested either alone or in autologous mixture combinations with peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) as a source of effector cells. The assays studied were graft-vs-host reaction (GvHR) and mixed lymphocyte (MLR) reaction, spontaneous cellular cytotoxicity and antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity, and mitogen responsiveness to Con A, PHA, and PWM. When tested alone, high numbers of thymus cells (1 X 10(7) gave weak or low responses, with the exception of GvHR, which was high. When this number of thymocytes was mixed with a strongly responding PBL effector population, there was marked suppression of the latter. Nonspecific crowding was excluded as a cause for the decreased responsiveness, and the data therefore demonstrated the presence of suppressor cells in the thymus. With gradual reduction of the thymus cell number in the mixtures, the suppressor activity was lost, but concomitant with this was the appearance of, or a gradual increase in, thymus effector cells giving good responses. Further dilutions of the thymus (to, e.g., 1 X 10(5) cells) depleted the suspension of effector cells, but helper cells capable of markedly amplifying the effector potential of PBL were revealed. The suppressor/helper function of the thymus was not only dependent on the absolute numbers of thymus cells present, but also on the degree of inherent responsiveness of the effector PBL. If the response of PBL alone was strong, a thymus suspension containing both helper and suppressor cells (e.g., 1 X 10(6) cells) caused suppression of the PBL; if the PBL alone were weak, this same thymus cell suspension caused enhancement. The outcome of an immune response is therefore dependent not only on the presence or absence of particular cell types, but also on the ratios between these cells. An imbalance in these ratios in vivo may underlie diseases of immunologic origin, e.g., autoimmunity.

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