The nature of follicular helper CD4(+) T (Tfh) cell differentiation remains controversial, including the minimal signals required for Tfh cell differentiation and the time at which Tfh cell differentiation occurs. Here we determine that Tfh cell development initiates immediately during dendritic cell (DC) priming in vivo. We demonstrate that inducible costimulator (ICOS) provides a critical early signal to induce the transcription factor Bcl6, and Bcl6 then induces CXCR5, the canonical feature of Tfh cells. Strikingly, a bifurcation between Tfh and effector Th cells was measurable by the second cell division of CD4(+) T cells, at day 2 after an acute viral infection: IL2Rα(int) cells expressed Bcl6 and CXCR5 (Tfh cell program), whereas IL2Rα(hi) cells exhibited strong Blimp1 expression that repressed Bcl6 (effector Th cell program). Virtually complete polarization between Bcl6(+) Tfh cells and Blimp1(+) effector Th cell populations developed by 72 hr, even without B cells. Tfh cells were subsequently lost in the absence of B cells, demonstrating a B cell requirement for maintenance of Bcl6 and Tfh cell commitment via sequential ICOS signals.
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