The stromal network of the thymus provides a unique environment that supports the development of mature CD4(+) and CD8(+) T cells expressing a very diverse repertoire of T cell receptors (TCR) with limited reactivity to self-antigens. Thymic cortical epithelial cells (cTECs) are specialized antigen-presenting cells (APCs) that promote the positive selection of developing thymocytes while medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) and thymic dendritic cells (tDCs) induce central tolerance to self-antigens. Recent studies showed that cTECs express a unique set of proteases involved in the generation of self-peptides presented by major-histocompatibility encoded molecules (pMHC) and consequently may express a unique set of pMHC complexes. Conversely, the stromal cells of the medulla developed several mechanisms to mirror as closely as possible the constellation of self-peptides derived from peripheral tissues. Here, we discuss how these different features allow for the development of a highly diverse but poorly self-reactive repertoire of functional T cells.
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