The generation and fate of thymocytes

Semin Immunol. 1990 Jan;2(1):3-12.


In the adult thymus the majority of thymocytes are at a non-proliferating end stage, during which 3% of all CD4+CD8+ cortical thymocytes are selected on the basis of appropriate T-cell antigen-receptor (TcR) specificity to become CD4-CD8+ or CD4+CD8- mature thymocytes. The selected mature cells gradually emigrate to the periphery. The 97% unselected, or positively rejected, CD4+CD8+ thymocytes die in the thymus. This 3-day end stage is, however, the product of around 2 weeks of proliferation by less mature thymocytes, which gives about a 10(5)-fold expansion from the hundred prothymocytes estimated to seed the thymus each day. Rearrangement and expression of TcR genes and a sequence of changes in surface antigens occurs during this prolonged period. Two sequential waves of expansion and differentiation appear to be involved. The first, about 1 week long, involves the less than 0.1% of thymocytes which still resemble the prothymocyte; this leads via a non-dividing interval to the second 1-week stage involving the 3% of CD4-CD8- thymocytes and then the CD4+CD8+ blasts.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Death
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Division
  • Cell Movement
  • Lymphocyte Activation / physiology
  • Mice
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / biosynthesis
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • Thymus Gland / cytology*
  • Thymus Gland / immunology


  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell