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.
© 2011 New York Academy of Sciences.