Heterogeneity within the CD4-, CD8- thymocyte population was explored by flow microfluorometry on thymocytes from 6-wk-old female C57BL/6 mice. Double negative cells were obtained by twice killing thymocytes with anti-CD4 and anti-CD8 antibodies. The resultant population lacked CD4, CD8, and Ig on cell surfaces; it contained cells bearing Ly-24 (27%), Ly-6C (6%), and Ly-5 (B220) detected by 6B2 (6%). These markers are the same as those characteristic of lpr/lpr T cells; they also are found on bone marrow cells. In order to investigate the maturational pathway of CD4-, CD8- thymocytes, such cells were cultured in vitro for 6 days with phorbol myristate acetate + calcium ionophore. There was a marked increase in cells bearing Ly-24 with time; by 6 days essentially all bore Ly-24. A lesser increase (to 15%) in 6B2 + Thy-1 positive cells was observed. Small numbers of cells bearing CD4 and/or CD8 also were found after 6 days in vitro. In additional studies, CD4-, CD8- cells were first sorted with respect to Ly-24 and then cultured with phorbol myristate acetate + calcium ionophore. Ly-24+ cells proliferated vigorously and formed clusters whereas Ly-24- cells did not. The former gave rise to large numbers of CD4+, CD8+ cells; the latter exhibited little differentiation. These studies demonstrate substantial heterogeneity within the CD4-, CD8- thymocyte population. Use of the markers Ly-24, Ly6C, and 6B2 allows a subdivision of such progenitor thymocytes. Different stages of maturation as well as possible lineages of cells may be investigated by combining such hemopoietic cell surface markers with in vitro culture.

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