The Bcl-2 regulated apoptosis pathway is critical for the elimination of autoreactive lymphocytes, thereby precluding autoimmunity. T cells escaping this process can be kept in check by regulatory T (Treg) cells expressing the transcription and lineage commitment factor Foxp3. Despite the well-established role of Bcl-2 family proteins in shaping the immune system and their frequent deregulation in autoimmune pathologies, it is poorly understood how these proteins affect Treg cell development and function. Here we compared the relative expression of a panel of 40 apoptosis-associated genes in Treg vs. conventional CD4(+) T cells. Physiological significance of key-changes was validated using gene-modified mice lacking or overexpressing pro- or anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members. We define a key role for the Bim/Bcl-2 axis in Treg cell development, homeostasis and function but exclude a role for apoptosis induction in responder T cells as relevant suppression mechanism. Notably, only lack of the pro-apoptotic BH3-only protein Bim or Bcl-2 overexpression led to accumulation of Treg cells while loss of pro-apoptotic Bad, Bmf, Puma or Noxa had no effect. Remarkably, apoptosis resistant Treg cells showed reduced suppressive capacity in a model of T cell-driven colitis, posing a caveat for the use of such long-lived cells in possible therapeutic settings.
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