Single-Cell Transcriptional Profiling Reveals Signatures of Helper, Effector, and Regulatory MAIT Cells during Homeostasis and Activation

J Immunol. 2022 Mar 1;208(5):1042-1056. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.2100522. Epub 2022 Feb 11.


Mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells are innate-like lymphocytes that recognize microbial vitamin B metabolites and have emerging roles in infectious disease, autoimmunity, and cancer. Although MAIT cells are identified by a semi-invariant TCR, their phenotypic and functional heterogeneity is not well understood. Here we present an integrated single cell transcriptomic analysis of over 76,000 human MAIT cells during early and prolonged Ag-specific activation with the MR1 ligand 5-OP-RU and nonspecific TCR stimulation. We show that MAIT cells span a broad range of homeostatic, effector, helper, tissue-infiltrating, regulatory, and exhausted phenotypes, with distinct gene expression programs associated with CD4+ or CD8+ coexpression. During early activation, MAIT cells rapidly adopt a cytotoxic phenotype characterized by high expression of GZMB, IFNG and TNF In contrast, prolonged stimulation induces heterogeneous states defined by proliferation, cytotoxicity, immune modulation, and exhaustion. We further demonstrate a FOXP3 expressing MAIT cell subset that phenotypically resembles conventional regulatory T cells. Moreover, scRNAseq-defined MAIT cell subpopulations were also detected in individuals recently exposed to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, confirming their presence during human infection. To our knowledge, our study provides the first comprehensive atlas of human MAIT cells in activation conditions and defines substantial functional heterogeneity, suggesting complex roles in health and disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Granzymes / metabolism
  • Homeostasis / immunology
  • Humans
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism
  • Lymphocyte Activation / immunology*
  • Mucosal-Associated Invariant T Cells / cytology
  • Mucosal-Associated Invariant T Cells / immunology*
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / immunology*
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology
  • Ribitol / analogs & derivatives
  • Ribitol / immunology
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Transcriptome / genetics
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism
  • Uracil / analogs & derivatives
  • Uracil / immunology


  • 5-(2-oxopropylideneamino)-6-d-ribitylaminouracil
  • Forkhead Transcription Factors
  • Foxp3 protein, mouse
  • IFNG protein, mouse
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell
  • Tnf protein, mouse
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Ribitol
  • Uracil
  • Interferon-gamma
  • Granzymes
  • Gzmb protein, mouse