The descent of memory T cells

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 Jan;1217:139-53. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05830.x. Epub 2011 Jan 14.


Our T cell repertoire is shaped by antigen encounter. From a naive T cell pool that contains millions of different T cells with unknown specificities, pathogen infection leads to selection of those T cells that can detect pathogen-derived antigens. Following clearance of infection, a population of memory T cells remains and protects the individual from severe reinfection. A central question in the field has been how the generation of long-lived memory T cells, versus short-lived ("terminally differentiated") T cells, is controlled. In this review we discuss the models that have been put forward to explain the generation of memory T cells after infection and the experimental evidence supporting these hypotheses. Based on the available data we propose a new model that stipulates that during immune responses T cells do not acquire different fates that determine their subsequent long-term survival but rather T cells assume different states that simply reflect the likelihood of future survival, states that can still be modulated by external signals.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation / immunology*
  • Epitopes, T-Lymphocyte / immunology*
  • Epitopes, T-Lymphocyte / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Memory*
  • Models, Immunological
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / cytology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism*


  • Epitopes, T-Lymphocyte