ILC Differentiation in the Thymus

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2022;1365:25-39. doi: 10.1007/978-981-16-8387-9_3.


The thymus provides a microenvironment conducive to the differentiation of innate lymphoid cells (ILCs), supplying IL-7 as well as Notch ligands. Early T cell precursors also express a number of obligatory transcription factors essential for ILC differentiation. Therefore, the thymus could be a powerhouse for ILC production. However, coordinated regulation by transcription factors and T cell receptor signaling events ensure that T cell production is the dominating output of the thymus. One group of the key regulators are the basic helix-loop-helix E protein transcription factors and their inhibitors, Id proteins. When E protein activities are downregulated, T cell development is blocked and massive ILC2 production occurs in the thymus. Normally, the thymus indeed generates a small number of ILCs, mostly group 2 ILCs (ILC2s). It has been shown in vitro that ILC2s can be differentiated from multipotent early T cell progenitors (ETPs) as well as committed T cell precursors. Moreover, thymus-derived ILC precursors have been found in the blood of adult mice. They then home to peripheral tissues and undergo differentiation into distinct ILC subsets. These ILC precursors may replenish tissue ILC pools in steady state or on demand in pathophysiological conditions. Collectively, emerging evidence suggests that the thymus plays an underappreciated role in ILC homeostasis.

Keywords: E proteins; ILC2s; Id proteins; Innate lymphoid cells; Thymus.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Lymphocytes* / metabolism
  • Mice
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism


  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Transcription Factors