The relationship between the expression of the MEL-14-defined lymphocyte homing receptor and the proliferation and functional differentiation of thymocytes in response to lectin stimulation was examined. Two-color fluorescent staining with MEL-14 in various combinations with PNA and anti-Ly-2 and anti-L3T4 was used to separate thymocyte populations for functional analysis. A high cloning-efficiency limit-dilution culture system was used to determine the frequency of all cells responsive to concanavalin A (PTL-p) or of all precursors of lectin-enhanced cytolytic lymphocytes (CTL-p). As expected from earlier studies, PTL-p and CTL-p were concentrated in the PNA- thymocytes, PTL-p were in both the Ly-2- L3T4+ and the Ly-2+ L3T4- subpopulations, and CTL-p were predominantely in the Ly-2+ L3T4- subpopulation. Within the PNA- thymocytes, two distinct peaks of PTL-p were found in cells stained with MEL-14, corresponding to MEL-14- and MEL-14medium-to-high cells, whereas the CTL-p frequency increased in fractions showing increasing expression of the MEL-14-defined antigen. Within the Ly-2- L3T4+ subpopulation, two distinct peaks of PTL-p were found corresponding to groups of MEL-14- and MEL-14medium-to-high cells, with the intermediate fraction of MEL-14low cells displaying a very low PTL-p frequency. The Ly-2+ L3T4- subpopulation included fewer MEL-14- cells and more MEL-14high cells than the Ly-2- L3T4+ subpopulation. Within the Ly-2+ L3T4- subpopulation, the few MEL-14- cells expressed a relatively low but definite frequency of CTL-p and PTL-p. The more numerous MEL-14+, Ly-2+ L3T4- cells included a high frequency of CTL-p and PTL-p, which did not vary over the medium-to-high MEL-14 expression range. These results indicate that the correlation of MEL-14 expression with CTL-p frequency among thymocytes is largely a consequence of the relative frequency of Ly-2+ L3T4- cells in the separated fractions, rather than a direct link between MEL-14 expression and function. Nevertheless, MEL-14 does define significant heterogeneity in both the Ly-2+ L3T4- and the Ly-2- L3T4+ subpopulations. In particular, there is a reduced functional response among the small subgroup of Ly-2+ L3T4- MEL-14- cells, suggesting this population includes either immature cells or cells of a different functional type.

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