Elimination of Self-Reactive T Cells in the Thymus: A Timeline for Negative Selection

Ivan Lilyanov Dzhagalov, Katherine Grace Chen, Paul Herzmark, Ellen A. Robey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


The elimination of autoreactive T cells occurs via thymocyte apoptosis and removal by thymic phagocytes, but the sequence of events in vivo, and the relationship between thymocyte death and phagocytic clearance, are unknown. Here we address these questions by following a synchronized cohort of thymocytes undergoing negative selection within a three-dimensional thymic tissue environment, from the initial encounter with a negative selecting ligand to thymocyte death and clearance. Encounter with cognate peptide-MHC complexes results in rapid calcium flux and migratory arrest in auto-reactive thymocytes over a broad range of peptide concentrations, followed by a lag period in which gene expression changes occurred, but there was little sign of thymocyte death. Caspase 3 activation and thymocyte loss were first detectable at 2 and 3 hours, respectively, and entry of individual thymocytes into the death program occurred asynchronously over the next 10 hours. Two-photon time-lapse imaging revealed that thymocyte death and phagocytosis occurred simultaneously, often with thymocytes engulfed prior to changes in chromatin and membrane permeability. Our data provide a timeline for negative selection and reveal close coupling between cell death and clearance in the thymus.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1001566
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2013


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