Inflammation-driven reprogramming of CD4+ Foxp3+ regulatory T cells into pathogenic Th1/Th17 T effectors is abrogated by mTOR inhibition in vivo

PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35572. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035572. Epub 2012 Apr 24.


While natural CD4(+)Foxp3(+) regulatory T (nT(REG)) cells have long been viewed as a stable and distinct lineage that is committed to suppressive functions in vivo, recent evidence supporting this notion remains highly controversial. We sought to determine whether Foxp3 expression and the nT(REG) cell phenotype are stable in vivo and modulated by the inflammatory microenvironment. Here, we show that Foxp3(+) nT(REG) cells from thymic or peripheral lymphoid organs reveal extensive functional plasticity in vivo. We show that nT(REG) cells readily lose Foxp3 expression, destabilizing their phenotype, in turn, enabling them to reprogram into Th1 and Th17 effector cells. nT(REG) cell reprogramming is a characteristic of the entire Foxp3(+) nT(REG) population and the stable Foxp3(NEG) T(REG) cell phenotype is associated with a methylated foxp3 promoter. The extent of nT(REG) cell reprogramming is modulated by the presence of effector T cell-mediated signals, and occurs independently of variation in IL-2 production in vivo. Moreover, the gut microenvironment or parasitic infection favours the reprogramming of Foxp3(+) T(REG) cells into effector T cells and promotes host immunity. IL-17 is predominantly produced by reprogrammed Foxp3(+) nT(REG) cells, and precedes Foxp3 down-regulation, a process accentuated in mesenteric sites. Lastly, mTOR inhibition with the immunosuppressive drug, rapamycin, stabilizes Foxp3 expression in T(REG) cells and strongly inhibits IL-17 but not RORγt expression in reprogrammed Foxp3(-) T(REG) cells. Overall, inflammatory signals modulate mTOR signalling and influence the stability of the Foxp3(+) nT(REG) cell phenotype.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • CD4 Antigens / immunology
  • Down-Regulation
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / immunology*
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology
  • Inflammation / genetics
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Interleukin-17 / immunology
  • Interleukin-2 / immunology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestines / immunology
  • Intestines / parasitology
  • Lymphopenia / genetics
  • Lymphopenia / immunology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Nuclear Receptor Subfamily 1, Group F, Member 3 / genetics
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Sirolimus / pharmacology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes, Regulatory / metabolism
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / immunology
  • Th1 Cells / immunology*
  • Th1 Cells / pathology
  • Th17 Cells / immunology*
  • Th17 Cells / pathology


  • CD4 Antigens
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • Foxp3 protein, mouse
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Interleukin-17
  • Interleukin-2
  • Nuclear Receptor Subfamily 1, Group F, Member 3
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • mTOR protein, mouse
  • Sirolimus