Initially the intraepithelial leukocytes (IEL) of specific pathogen free (SPF) mice were compared with those of mice held without isolation and were found to differ markedly in total number and distribution of cell surface antigens. The IEL from SPF mice expressed significantly less Thy-1, Lyt-1, and Lyt-2 antigens than their conventional counterparts. The local cell-mediated immune response of mucosal lymphocytes to an enteric murine coronavirus (MHV-Y) was studied in inbred strains of naive SPF mice. A potent in vitro cytotoxic activity was demonstrated by mucosal leukocytes, especially IEL, and spleen cells for MHV-Y-infected syngeneic and allogeneic target cells. The cytotoxicity was not restricted by the major histocompatibility complex. Targets infected with Pichinde virus, an enveloped nonenterotropic virus, were not lysed by these cells. The phenotype of the IEL effector cell was asialo GM1+, Thy-1-, Lyt-1-, Lyt-2-. This cell represents a small subpopulation of the total IEL. After the in vivo administration of anti-asialo GM1 sera, the virus-specific cytotoxic function of the IEL was markedly diminished in in vitro assays, and there was enhanced persistence of virus in gut tissues in vivo. The IEL effector population is defined as a natural killer-like cell that appears to be active in the defense of the gut epithelium to a murine enteric coronavirus.

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