Transcriptome profiling of human thymic CD4+ and CD8+ T cells compared to primary peripheral T cells

BMC Genomics. 2020 May 11;21(1):350. doi: 10.1186/s12864-020-6755-1.


Background: The thymus is a highly specialized organ of the immune system where T cell precursors develop and differentiate into self-tolerant CD4+ or CD8+ T cells. No studies to date have investigated how the human transcriptome profiles differ, between T cells still residing in the thymus and T cells in the periphery.

Results: We have performed high-throughput RNA sequencing to characterize the transcriptomes of primary single positive (SP) CD4+ and CD8+ T cells from infant thymic tissue, as well as primary CD4+ and CD8+ T cells from infant and adult peripheral blood, to enable the comparisons across tissues and ages. In addition, we have assessed the expression of candidate genes related to autoimmune diseases in thymic CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. The thymic T cells showed the largest number of uniquely expressed genes, suggesting a more diverse transcription in thymic T cells. Comparing T cells of thymic and blood origin, revealed more differentially expressed genes, than between infant and adult blood. Functional enrichment analysis revealed an over-representation of genes involved in cell cycle and replication in thymic T cells, whereas infant blood T cells were dominated by immune related terms. Comparing adult and infant blood T cells, the former was enriched for inflammatory response, cytokine production and biological adhesion, while upregulated genes in infant blood T cells were associated with cell cycle, cell death and gene expression.

Conclusion: This study provides valuable insight into the transcriptomes of the human primary SP T cells still residing within the thymus, and offers a unique comparison to primary blood derived T cells. Interestingly, the majority of autoimmune disease associated genes were expressed in one or more T cell subset, however ~ 11% of these were not expressed in frequently studied adult peripheral blood.

Keywords: Human; RNA-seq; T cells; Thymus; Transcriptome.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autoimmune Diseases / genetics
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology
  • Autoimmune Diseases / pathology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Child
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / cytology
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • Thymus Gland / immunology*
  • Thymus Gland / metabolism
  • Transcriptome*