The killing of antigen-bearing cells by clonal populations of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) is thought to be a rapid phenomenon executed uniformly by individual CTLs. We combined bulk and single-CTL killing assays over a prolonged time period to provide the killing statistics of clonal human CTLs against an excess of target cells. Our data reveal efficiency in sustained killing at the population level, which relied on a highly heterogeneous multiple killing performance at the individual level. Although intraclonal functional heterogeneity was a stable trait in clonal populations, it was reset in the progeny of individual CTLs. In-depth mathematical analysis of individual CTL killing data revealed a substantial proportion of high-rate killer CTLs with burst killing activity. Importantly, such activity was delayed and required activation with strong antigenic stimulation. Our study implies that functional heterogeneity allows CTL populations to calibrate prolonged cytotoxic activity to the size of target cell populations.
Copyright © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.