Retracing the evolutionary emergence of thymopoiesis.
ABSTRACT: The onset of lymphocyte development in the vertebrate primordial thymus, about 500 million years ago, represents one of the foundational events of the emerging adaptive immune system. Here, we retrace the evolutionary trajectory of thymopoiesis, from early vertebrates to mammals, guided by members of the Foxn1/4 transcription factor gene family, which direct the differentiation of the thymic microenvironment. Molecular engineering in transgenic mice recapitulated a gene duplication event, exon replacements, and altered expression patterns. These changes predictably modified the lymphopoietic characteristics of the thymus, identifying molecular features contributing to conversion of a primordial bipotent lymphoid organ to a tissue specializing in T cell development. The phylogenetic reconstruction associates increasing efficiency of T cell generation with diminishing B cell-generating capacity of the thymus during jawed vertebrate evolution.
Project description:The thymus is essential for T-cell development. Here, we focus on the role of the transcription factor Foxn1 in the development and function of thymic epithelial cells (TECs) of the mouse. TECs are of endodermal origin; they initially express Foxn1 and give rise to orthotopic (thoracic) and additional (cervical) thymi. Using Foxn1-directed cytoablation, we show that during embryogenesis, cervical thymi develop a few days after the thoracic lobes, and that bipotent epithelial progenitors of cortical and medullary compartments express Foxn1. We also show that following acute selective near-total ablation during embryogenesis, complete regeneration of TECs does not occur, providing an animal model for human thymic aplasia syndromes. Finally, we address the functional role of Foxn1-negative TECs that arise postnatally in the mouse. Lineage tracing shows that such Foxn1-negative TECs are descendants of Foxn1-positive progenitors; furthermore, Foxn1-directed subacute intoxication of TECs by polyglutamine-containing EGFP proteins indicates that a presumptive Foxn1-independent lineage does not contribute to thymopoietic function of the adult thymus. Our findings therefore support the notion that Foxn1 is the essential transcription factor regulating the differentiation of TECs and that its expression marks the major functional lineage of TECs in embryonic and adult thymic tissue.
Project description:Age-associated systemic, chronic inflammation is partially attributed to increased self-autoreactivity, resulting from disruption of central tolerance in the aged, involuted thymus. This involution causally results from gradually decreased expression of the transcription factor FOXN1 in thymic epithelial cells (TECs), whereas exogenous FOXN1 in TECs can partially rescue age-related thymic involution. TECs induced from FOXN1-overexpressing embryonic fibroblasts can generate an ectopic de novo thymus under the kidney capsule, and intrathymic injection of naturally young TECs can lead to middle-aged thymus regrowth. Therefore, as a thymic rejuvenation strategy, we extended these 2 findings by combining them with 2 types of promoter-driven (Rosa26CreERT and FoxN1Cre) Cre-mediated FOXN1-reprogrammed embryonic fibroblasts (FREFs). We engrafted these FREFs directly into the aged murine thymus. We found substantial regrowth of the native aged thymus with rejuvenated architecture and function in both males and females, exhibiting increased thymopoiesis and reinforced thymocyte negative selection, along with reduced senescent T cells and autoreactive T cell-mediated inflammation in old mice. Therefore, this approach has preclinical significance and presents a strategy to potentially rescue decreased thymopoiesis and perturbed negative selection to substantially, albeit partially, restore defective central tolerance and reduce subclinical autoimmune symptoms in elderly people.
Project description:The thymus is mainly comprised of thymic epithelial cells (TECs), which form the unique thymic epithelial microenvironment essential for intrathymic T-cell development. Foxn1, a member of the forkhead transcription factor family, is required for establishing a functional thymic rudiment. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying the function of Foxn1 are still largely unclear. Here, we show that Foxn1 functions in thymus development through Mcm2 in the zebrafish. We demonstrate that, in foxn1 knockdown embryos, the thymic rudiment is reduced and T-cell development is impaired. Genome-wide expression profiling shows that a number of genes, including some known thymopoiesis genes, are dysregulated during the initiation of the thymus primordium and immigration of T-cell progenitors to the thymus. Functional and epistatic studies show that mcm2 and cdca7 are downstream of Foxn1, and mcm2 is a direct target gene of Foxn1 in TECs. Finally, we find that the thymus defects in foxn1 and mcm2 morphants might be attributed to reduced cell proliferation rather than apoptosis. Our results reveal that the foxn1-mcm2 axis plays a central role in the genetic regulatory network controlling thymus development in zebrafish.
Project description:We report a serum-free, 3D murine artificial thymic organoid (M-ATO) system that mimics normal murine thymopoiesis with the production of all T cell stages, from early thymic progenitors to functional single-positive (CD8SP and CD4SP) TCR?? and TCR?? cells. RNA sequencing aligns M-ATO-derived populations with phenotypically identical primary thymocytes. M-ATOs initiated with Rag1<sup>-/-</sup> marrow produce the same differentiation block as seen in the endogenous thymus, and Notch signaling patterns in M-ATOs mirror primary thymopoiesis. M-ATOs initiated with defined hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and lymphoid progenitors from marrow and thymus generate each of the downstream differentiation stages, allowing the kinetics of T cell differentiation to be tracked. Remarkably, single HSCs deposited into each M-ATO generate the complete trajectory of T cell differentiation, producing diverse TCR repertoires across clones that largely match endogenous thymus. M-ATOs represent a highly reproducible and efficient experimental platform for the interrogation of clonal thymopoiesis from HSCs.
Project description:The forkhead box n1 (Foxn1) transcription factor is essential for thymic organogenesis during embryonic development; however, a functional role of Foxn1 in the postnatal thymus is less well understood. We developed Foxn1 transgenic mice (Foxn1Tg), in which overexpression of Foxn1 is driven by the human keratin-14 promoter. Expression of the Foxn1 transgene increased the endogenous Foxn1 levels. In aged mice, overexpression of Foxn1 in the thymus attenuated the decline in thymocyte numbers, prevented the decline in frequency of early thymic progenitors, and generated a higher number of signal joint TCR excised circle. Histologic studies revealed that structural alterations associated with thymic involution were diminished in aged Foxn1 Tg. Total numbers of EpCAM+ MHC II+ and MHC II(hi) thymic epithelial cells were higher in young and old Foxn1Tg and more EpCAM+ MHC II(hi) TEC expressed Ki-67 in aged Foxn1Tg compared with WT. Furthermore, Foxn1Tg displayed a significant reduction in the expansion of splenic CD4+ memory compartments and attenuated the decline in CD4+ and CD8+ naive compartments. Our data indicate that manipulation of Foxn1 expression in the thymus ameliorates thymopoiesis in aged mice and offer a strategy to combat the age-associated decline in naive T-cell production and CD4 naive/memory ratios in the elderly.
Project description:Within the thymus, two major thymic epithelial cell (TEC) subsets-cortical and medullary TECs-provide unique structural and functional niches for T cell development and establishment of central tolerance. Both lineages are believed to originate from a common progenitor cell, yet the cellular and molecular identity of these bipotent TEC progenitors/stem cells remains ill defined. Here we identify rare stromal cells in the murine adult thymus, which under low-attachment conditions formed spheres (termed "thymospheres"). These thymosphere-forming cells (TSFCs) displayed the stemness features of being slow cycling, self-renewing, and bipotent. TSFCs could be significantly enriched based on their distinct surface antigen phenotype. The FoxN1 transcription factor was dispensable for TSFCs maintenance in situ and for commitment to the medullary and cortical TEC lineages. In summary, this study presents the characterization of the adult thymic epithelial stem cells and demonstrates the dispensability of FoxN1 function for their stemness.
Project description:Thymic involution is central to the decline in immune system function that occurs with age. By regenerating the thymus, it may therefore be possible to improve the ability of the aged immune system to respond to novel antigens. Recently, diminished expression of the thymic epithelial cell (TEC)-specific transcription factor Forkhead box N1 (FOXN1) has been implicated as a component of the mechanism regulating age-related involution. The effects of upregulating FOXN1 function in the aged thymus are, however, unknown. Here, we show that forced, TEC-specific upregulation of FOXN1 in the fully involuted thymus of aged mice results in robust thymus regeneration characterized by increased thymopoiesis and increased naive T cell output. We demonstrate that the regenerated organ closely resembles the juvenile thymus in terms of architecture and gene expression profile, and further show that this FOXN1-mediated regeneration stems from an enlarged TEC compartment, rebuilt from progenitor TECs. Collectively, our data establish that upregulation of a single transcription factor can substantially reverse age-related thymic involution, identifying FOXN1 as a specific target for improving thymus function and, thus, immune competence in patients. More widely, they demonstrate that organ regeneration in an aged mammal can be directed by manipulation of a single transcription factor, providing a provocative paradigm that may be of broad impact for regenerative biology.
Project description:Androgens have profound effects on T cell homeostasis, including regulation of thymic T lymphopoiesis (thymopoiesis) and production of recent thymic emigrants (RTEs), i. e., immature T cells that derive from the thymus and continue their maturation to mature naïve T cells in secondary lymphoid organs. Here we investigated the androgen target cell for effects on thymopoiesis and RTEs in spleen and lymph nodes. Male mice with a general androgen receptor knockout (G-ARKO), T cell-specific (T-ARKO), or epithelial cell-specific (E-ARKO) knockout were examined. G-ARKO mice showed increased thymus weight and increased numbers of thymic T cell progenitors. These effects were not T cell-intrinsic, since T-ARKO mice displayed unaltered thymus weight and thymopoiesis. In line with a role for thymic epithelial cells (TECs), E-ARKO mice showed increased thymus weight and numbers of thymic T cell progenitors. Further, E-ARKO mice had more CD4+ and CD8+ T cells in spleen and an increased frequency of RTEs among T cells in spleen and lymph nodes. Depletion of the androgen receptor in epithelial cells was also associated with a small shift in the relative number of cortical (reduced) and medullary (increased) TECs and increased CCL25 staining in the thymic medulla, similar to previous observations in castrated mice. In conclusion, we demonstrate that the thymic epithelium is a target compartment for androgen-mediated regulation of thymopoiesis and consequently the generation of RTEs.
Project description:FOXN1 is the master regulatory gene of thymic epithelium development. FOXN1 deficiency leads to thymic aplasia, alopecia, and nail dystrophy, accounting for the nude/severe combined immunodeficiency (nu/SCID) phenotype in humans and mice. We identified several newborns with low levels of T cell receptor excision circles (TRECs) and T cell lymphopenia at birth, who carried heterozygous loss-of-function FOXN1 variants. Longitudinal analysis showed persistent T cell lymphopenia during infancy, often associated with nail dystrophy. Adult individuals with heterozygous FOXN1 variants had in most cases normal CD4+ but lower than normal CD8+ cell counts. We hypothesized a FOXN1 gene dosage effect on the function of thymic epithelial cells (TECs) and thymopoiesis and postulated that these effects would be more prominent early in life. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed TEC subset frequency and phenotype, early thymic progenitor (ETP) cell count, and expression of FOXN1 target genes (Ccl25, Cxcl12, Dll4, Scf, Psmb11, Prss16, and Cd83) in Foxn1nu/+ (nu/+) mice and age-matched wild-type (+/+) littermate controls. Both the frequency and the absolute count of ETP were significantly reduced in nu/+ mice up to 3 weeks of age. Analysis of the TEC compartment showed reduced expression of FOXN1 target genes and delayed maturation of the medullary TEC compartment in nu/+ mice. These observations establish a FOXN1 gene dosage effect on thymic function and identify FOXN1 haploinsufficiency as an important genetic determinant of T cell lymphopenia at birth.
Project description:Age-related thymic involution is characterized by a decrease in thymic epithelial cell (TEC) number and function parallel to a disruption in their spatial organization, resulting in defective thymocyte development and proliferation as well as peripheral T cell dysfunction. Deficiency of Klotho, an antiaging gene and modifier of fibroblast growth factor signaling, causes premature aging. To investigate the role of Klotho in accelerated age-dependent thymic involution, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of thymopoiesis and peripheral T cell homeostasis using Klotho-deficient (Kl/Kl) mice. At 8 wk of age, Kl/Kl mice displayed a severe reduction in the number of thymocytes (10-100-fold reduction), especially CD4 and CD8 double-positive cells, and a reduction of both cortical and medullary TECs. To address a cell-autonomous role for Klotho in TEC biology, we implanted neonatal thymi from Klotho-deficient and -sufficient mice into athymic hosts. Kl/Kl thymus grafts supported thymopoiesis equivalently to Klotho-sufficient thymus transplants, indicating that Klotho is not intrinsically essential for TEC support of thymopoiesis. Moreover, lethally irradiated hosts given Kl/Kl or wild-type bone marrow had normal thymocyte development and comparably reconstituted T cells, indicating that Klotho is not inherently essential for peripheral T cell reconstitution. Because Kl/Kl mice have higher levels of serum phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D, we evaluated thymus function in Kl/Kl mice fed with a vitamin D-deprived diet. We observed that a vitamin D-deprived diet abrogated thymic involution and T cell lymphopenia in 8-wk-old Kl/Kl mice. Taken together, our data suggest that Klotho deficiency causes thymic involution via systemic effects that include high active vitamin D levels.