The transcription factor Bcl11b promotes both canonical and adaptive NK cell differentiation

Sci Immunol. 2021 Mar 12;6(57):eabc9801. doi: 10.1126/sciimmunol.abc9801.


Epigenetic landscapes can provide insight into regulation of gene expression and cellular diversity. Here, we examined the transcriptional and epigenetic profiles of seven human blood natural killer (NK) cell populations, including adaptive NK cells. The BCL11B gene, encoding a transcription factor (TF) essential for T cell development and function, was the most extensively regulated, with expression increasing throughout NK cell differentiation. Several Bcl11b-regulated genes associated with T cell signaling were specifically expressed in adaptive NK cell subsets. Regulatory networks revealed reciprocal regulation at distinct stages of NK cell differentiation, with Bcl11b repressing RUNX2 and ZBTB16 in canonical and adaptive NK cells, respectively. A critical role for Bcl11b in driving NK cell differentiation was corroborated in BCL11B-mutated patients and by ectopic Bcl11b expression. Moreover, Bcl11b was required for adaptive NK cell responses in a murine cytomegalovirus model, supporting expansion of these cells. Together, we define the TF regulatory circuitry of human NK cells and uncover a critical role for Bcl11b in promoting NK cell differentiation and function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Cell Differentiation / immunology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chromatin Assembly and Disassembly
  • Enhancer Elements, Genetic
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • HLA Antigens / genetics
  • HLA Antigens / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunophenotyping
  • Infant
  • Killer Cells, Natural / cytology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Receptors, KIR / genetics
  • Receptors, KIR / metabolism
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Repressor Proteins / metabolism*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / metabolism
  • Transcriptome
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / genetics
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins / metabolism*


  • BCL11B protein, human
  • Bcl11b protein, mouse
  • Biomarkers
  • HLA Antigens
  • Receptors, KIR
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Tumor Suppressor Proteins