Bcl-2, a proto-oncogene that can block apoptosis, was found to be expressed throughout the thymic medulla, but in only scattered cells in the thymic cortex. In order to determine the precise distribution of Bcl-2 protein during thymocyte development, we utilized mAb specific for either mouse or human Bcl-2. Thymocyte subpopulations were assessed using three-color flow cytometry and a saponin-permeabilization method. Staining of adult mouse and human thymocytes was comparable, with 20 to 35% of cells expressing Bcl-2. Bcl-2 was expressed in nearly all CD4+ and CD8+, and CD3hi cells, but in only 5 to 10% of CD4+8+ cells. The CD4-8- population was more variable, with 25 to 40% of human cells and 65 to 80% of murine cells expressing Bcl-2. In sorted adult murine CD4-8- cells, the very immature Pgp-1+/IL-2R alpha- subset had a high percentage of Bcl-2+ cells. Bcl-2 expression was also examined during murine fetal development. At fetal day 15.5 to 16.5, 60 to 70% of total thymocytes expressed Bcl-2. By fetal day 17.5, overall Bcl-2 expression fell to adult levels of 20 to 30%. Bcl-2 was present in peripheral T cells from lymph node, spleen, and peripheral blood at uniformly high levels. In vitro stimulation with anti-CD3 or anti-TCR antibodies increased Bcl-2 expression in total thymocyte cultures, but could not induce Bcl-2 expression in CD4+8+ cells, even with the addition of a variety of cytokines. These data suggest that early double negative thymocytes express Bcl-2 but lose Bcl-2 with differentiation to the double positive stage. Thymocytes regain Bcl-2 during selection to a single positive state and retain Bcl-2 in the periphery.

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