Cellular differentiation is regulated by the strict spatial and temporal control of gene expression. This is achieved, in part, by regulating changes in histone post-translational modifications (PTMs) and DNA methylation that in turn, impact transcriptional activity. Further, histone PTMs and DNA methylation are often propagated faithfully at cell division (termed epigenetic propagation), and thus contribute to maintaining cellular identity in the absence of signals driving differentiation. Cardinal features of adaptive T cell immunity include the ability to differentiate in response to infection, resulting in acquisition of immune functions required for pathogen clearance; and the ability to maintain this functional capacity in the long-term, allowing more rapid and effective pathogen elimination following re-infection. These characteristics underpin vaccination strategies by effectively establishing a long-lived T cell population that contributes to an immunologically protective state (termed immunological memory). As we discuss in this review, epigenetic mechanisms provide attractive and powerful explanations for key aspects of T cell-mediated immunity - most obviously and notably, immunological memory, because of the capacity of epigenetic circuits to perpetuate cellular identities in the absence of the initial signals that drive differentiation. Indeed, T cell responses to infection are an ideal model system for studying how epigenetic factors shape cellular differentiation and development generally. This review will examine how epigenetic mechanisms regulate T cell function and differentiation, and how these model systems are providing general insights into the epigenetic regulation of gene transcription during cellular differentiation.
Keywords: T cell Immunity; T cell differentiation; T cell memory; epigenetics; viral immunity.