The monoclonal antibody MEL-14 recognizes a lymphocyte surface structure (the MEL-14 antigen) involved in migration of lymphocytes into lymph nodes. Its use as a maturation marker for T cells within the thymus led to the view that a small population (1 to 2%) of MEL-14high thymocytes located in the inner cortex represented fully mature cells about to exit as thymus emigrants. The medulla, in this view, contained only the phenotypically mature but MEL-14low cells, and was not the source of thymus emigrants. The data we present, derived from flow-cytometric analysis of suspension-stained CBA mouse thymocytes, is not in accordance with this view. A high proportion (approximately 20%) of thymocytes express relatively high levels of MEL-14; these include some immature Ly-2- L3T4- and nonmature Ly-2+ L3T4+ thymocytes. Among the 12 to 14% thymocytes of mature phenotype (PNAlow or H-2Khigh or Ly-2+ L3T4- and Ly-2- L3T4+), more than half express relatively high levels of MEL-14. The mature phenotype and MEL-14moderate-to-high cells (8% of thymocytes) appear too numerous to account for the few percent MEL-14high cells seen in the cortex in frozen sections, and the mature phenotype but MEL-14low cells (2 to 3% of thymocytes) too few to fill the medulla; however, both together account numerically for the medullary population. By section staining, the medulla contains Ly-2- L3T4+ and Ly-2+ L3T4- cells in a characteristic 2:1 ratio; by suspension staining this ratio agrees with that of the total mature phenotype population, but not with that of the MEL-14low subset previously claimed to represent medullary cells. Another paradox is apparent when suspension staining and section staining are compared: suspension staining reveals that many mature phenotype cells coexpress high levels of both MEL-14 and H-2K, yet section staining reveals H-2Khigh cells in the medulla but not in the inner cortex, and reveals scattered MEL-14high cells throughout the cortex but not in the medulla. We suggest that section staining for MEL-14 fails to locate the mature cells that stain for MEL-14 in suspension; the few MEL-14high cells localized in both the inner and the outer cortex on section staining are predominantly immature Ly-2- L3T4- and nonmature Ly-2+ L3T4+ thymocytes; the majority of thymocytes of mature phenotype, whether MEL-14high or MEL-14low on suspension staining, are of medullary location; the medulla is the most likely immediate source of thymic emigrants.

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