Delineation of signals required for thymocyte positive selection.
ABSTRACT Peptide/MHC complexes capable of inducing positive selection in mouse fetal thymic organ cultures fail to do so in suspension culture. Furthermore, this type of culture does not promote initial stages of differentiation, such as coreceptor down-modulation, unless peptides used for stimulation have (at least) weak agonist activity. We show in this study that signals provided in suspension culture by nonagonist peptide/MHC complexes on the surface of macrophages, even though apparently silent, are sufficient to promote complete phenotypic differentiation when CD4+CD8+ thymocytes are subsequently placed in a proper anatomical setting. Furthermore, the synergistic actions of suboptimal concentrations of phorbol esters and nonagonist peptide/MHC complexes can make the initial stages of positive selection visible, without converting maturation into negative selection. Thus, the correlation between efficiency of positive selection and the degree of coreceptor down-modulation on CD4+CD8+ thymocytes is not linear. Furthermore, these results suggest that the unique role of thymic stromal cells in positive selection is related not to presentation of self-peptide/MHC complexes, but most likely to another ligand.