Thymus organogenesis

Annu Rev Immunol. 2008;26:355-88. doi: 10.1146/annurev.immunol.26.021607.090408.


The epithelial architecture of the thymus fosters growth, differentiation, and T cell receptor repertoire selection of large numbers of immature T cells that continuously feed the mature peripheral T cell pool. Failure to build or to maintain a proper thymus structure can lead to defects ranging from immunodeficiency to autoimmunity. There has been long-standing interest in unraveling the cellular and molecular basis of thymus organogenesis. Earlier studies gave important morphological clues on thymus development. More recent cell biological and genetic approaches yielded new and conclusive insights regarding the germ layer origin of the epithelium and the composition of the medulla as a mosaic of clonally derived islets. The existence of epithelial progenitors common for cortex and medulla with the capacity for forming functional thymus after birth has been uncovered. In addition to the thymus in the chest, mice can have a cervical thymus that is small, but functional, and produces T cells only after birth. It will be important to elucidate the pathways from putative thymus stem cells to mature thymus epithelial cells, and the properties and regulation of these pathways from ontogeny to thymus involution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Germ Layers / embryology
  • Germ Layers / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Organogenesis*
  • Stem Cells / cytology
  • Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / embryology*
  • Thymus Gland / metabolism