Regulatory T cells (Tregs) are produced in the thymus to establish self-tolerance, and agonistic stimuli by self-Ags play a pivotal role in this process. Although two types of APCs, medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) and dendritic cells (DCs), are responsible for presenting self-Ags together with costimulatory/cytokine signals, the distinct role of each APC in producing Tregs remains enigmatic. We have approached this issue by depleting the mTECs and DCs using mice expressing diphtheria toxin receptors driven by Aire and CD11c promoters, respectively. Depletion of mTECs showed an effect on Treg production quantitatively and qualitatively more profound than that of DCs followed by the development of distinct organ-specific autoimmune lesions in the hosts. Because self-Ags produced by mTECs are transferable to DCs through a process known as Ag transfer, we monitored the process of Ag transfer using mice expressing GFP from TECs. Although GFP expressed from total TECs was effectively transferred to DCs, GFP expressed from cortical TECs was not, suggesting that mTECs are the predominant source of self-Ags. We also found that GFP expressed not only from mature mTECs but also from immature mTECs was transferred to DCs, suggesting that a broad spectrum of molecules were subjected to Ag transfer during mTEC development. Interestingly, the numbers of recirculating non-Tregs producing IL-2, an important source for Treg expansion in the thymus, were reduced only in the mTEC-depleted mice. These results suggested the cooperative but distinct role of mTECs and DCs in the production of Tregs to avoid autoimmunity.

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