Recent thymic emigrants in the rat express a unique antigenic phenotype and undergo post-thymic maturation in peripheral lymphoid tissues

J Immunol. 1993 Mar 1;150(5):1670-9.


Studies of the functional properties and developmental potentials of immediate post-thymic cells have been hampered by the lack of reliable markers with which to distinguish recent thymic emigrants (RTE) from the bulk of peripheral T cells. In the present study, the intrathymic FITC-labeling technique was used in concert with three-color flow-cytometric analysis to identify, phenotypically characterize, and study the short term fate of RTE in normal rats. The results indicated that between 3 and 4% of total T cells in lymph node and spleen of 5- to 8-wk-old rats had been released from the thymus within the preceding 24 h. Unlike the bulk of the peripheral T cells, which had a Thy1-, CD45RC+, and/or RT6+ phenotype, these RTE were Thy1+, CD45RC-, and RT6-. Furthermore, two discrete subsets of RTE were defined: a major subset (approximately 95%) of CD4+ or 8+ (single positive), TCR-alpha beta hi T cells that resembled medullary thymocytes; and a minor subset (approximately 5%) of CD4+ and 8+ (double positive), TCR-alpha beta low T cells that resembled cortical thymocytes. The following evidence suggested that most if not all Thy1+ T cells in young adult rats are RTE and their immediate descendants: 1) thymectomy (but not sham thymectomy) selectively depleted Thy1+ T cells from lymph node within 3 to 7 days, even in adrenalectomized rats; 2) most FITC-labeled RTE differentiated into Thy1-, CD45RC+, RT6+ T cells within 7 days of release from the thymus; 3) transitional phenotypes of Thy1+ T cells, including Thy1low, CD45RC+, and RT6+, were observed in normal, as well as in intrathymic, FITC-injected rats; 4) most T cells in neonatal rats were Thy1+ and RT6-, whereas their descendants were Thy1- and RT6+. These experiments demonstrate that most RTE in normal rats are phenotypically (and presumably developmentally) immature at the time of release from the thymus, and progressively acquire the phenotypic attributes of more mature T cells post-thymically. These unique phenotypic attributes should expedite the isolation of RTE and their immediate descendants for definitive studies of their developmental and functional properties.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Surface / analysis
  • Cell Movement
  • Female
  • Fluorescein-5-isothiocyanate
  • Leukocyte Common Antigens / analysis
  • Lymphoid Tissue / cytology*
  • Lymphoid Tissue / immunology
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / analysis
  • Phenotype
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / physiology*
  • Thy-1 Antigens
  • Thymus Gland / cytology*
  • Thymus Gland / immunology


  • Antigens, Surface
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Thy-1 Antigens
  • Leukocyte Common Antigens
  • Fluorescein-5-isothiocyanate