Characterization of the Murine Immunological Signaling
Network with Phosphospecific Flow Cytometry1
Peter O. Krutzik,2Matthew B. Hale,2and Garry P. Nolan3
The immune system is a multitiered network that at the first level uses changes to intracellular signaling proteins to commit cells
to determined fates. At the second tier, cells interact with one another via specifically expressed surface receptors and their cognate
signaling molecules. At the third level, the local environments of immune cells change the outcomes of intracellular signaling
pathways and thereby the role of cells during immune challenge. The interplay among these three tiers allows the distinct cell types
of the immune system to respond cohesively to eliminate foreign Ags. In this study, using phosphospecific flow cytometry, we
analyze elements of these network tiers by generating profiles of single-cell phosphoprotein responses in B cells, T cells, and
myeloid cells to a number of mechanistically and clinically relevant cytokines (IFN-?, GM-CSF, IL-2, and IL-10) as well as LPS
at key regulatory interfaces (Jak-Stat and MAPK pathways). The stimuli typically induced phosphorylation of specific signaling
pathways and exerted their effects on distinct subsets of immune cells. However, upon comparison of stimulation in vitro and in
vivo, we noted that signaling pathway specificity and cell type specificity were influenced strongly by the external environment.
When taken from the in vivo environment, certain cell subsets became hypo- or hyper-responsive, showed profound differences
in sensitivity to cytokine levels, or displayed altered phosphorylation kinetics. Thus, simultaneous analysis of the three tiers of the
immune system network illustrates the principles by which immune regulation is context dependent and how in vitro culture
systems compare with the in vivo environment. The Journal of Immunology, 2005, 175: 2366–2373.
highly organized, remotely communicating, immune compart-
ments. Illustrative of one tier of the network, activation of surface
receptors on a given immune cell modulates the activities of in-
tracellular proteins. Such modulation adjusts signaling pathway
structure, often via induced phosphorylation of cognate target pro-
teins. At the second tier of regulation, extracellular ligands act
specifically on one or more cell types, but the functional response
(secretion, differentiation, and proliferation) is a consequence of
integrating all local cellular outcomes to allow for a coordinate,
rapid, and highly effective response to pathogen challenges. Mod-
ulating the properties of both intracellular signaling pathways and
cell type specificity is the third level of the network, the local tissue
environment of the immune cells.
The study of cell subsets by phenotypic surface markers has
provided significant and potent understanding of immune pro-
cesses. Despite this, a fuller appreciation of intracellular signaling
would be required to supplement prior biochemical studies that
could not access subset-specific differences at the single-cell level,
because these assays are typically conducted by classical lysis
techniques of large numbers of cells. Therefore, it has been diffi-
he mammalian immune system forms a multitiered sig-
naling network composed of tightly regulated intracellu-
lar signaling, specialized interacting cell subsets, and
cult to analyze the first two tiers of the immune network simulta-
neously. Critically, because both levels of the network are de-
signed to respond to foreign challenge, one can gain maximal
understanding of the system by eliciting and measuring responses
to external stimuli.
Phosphospecific flow cytometry is uniquely suited to interrogate
the immunological signaling network at both the cell subset and
intracellular signaling levels, because cell types can be discrimi-
nated by surface markers and simultaneously analyzed for phos-
phorylation states of signaling proteins (1–11). This allows signal-
ing to be followed in multiple populations of immune cell lineages
at the single-cell level, a critical element for building an accurate
model of networked, multilevel signaling.
Among the many signaling pathways crucial to immune func-
tion, the Jak-Stat pathway plays a particularly important role in
cytokine signaling (12–14). As an example of Jak-Stat signaling,
binding of IFN-? to its receptor induces receptor dimerization,
activation of Jak1 and Jak2, and subsequent phosphorylation of
Stat1 on a conserved tyrosine residue. When phosphorylated, Stat1
proteins dimerize and translocate into the nucleus to activate tran-
scription of cognate genes such as IFN regulatory factor-1.
A survey of the network signaling properties of the Jak-Stat
pathway highlights how cytokines from multiple families (IFN-?,
GM-CSF, IL-2, and IL-10) can lead to the phosphorylation of
Stat1, Stat3, and Stat5 at the dimerization-inducing tyrosine resi-
dues. IFN-? is a member of the type II IFN family that is critical
to innate and acquired host responses to viral infection and for Th1
cell development. The IFN-?R is found in nearly all immune cell
types and signals through Jak1, Jak2, and Stat1. Because of its
important role in Th bias and viral clearance, a more comprehen-
sive understanding of the activation profiles in subsets of immune
cells in response to IFN-? is desirable.
Another important cytokine, GM-CSF, is a member of the
IL-3R family and induces myeloid differentiation and activation,
acting through Stat5. IL-2 is a member of the common ?-chain
family, all of which share the common ? signaling receptor chain.
Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Baxter Laboratory of Genetic Phar-
macology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
Received for publication March 10, 2005. Accepted for publication June 9, 2005.
The costs of publication of this article were defrayed in part by the payment of page
charges. This article must therefore be hereby marked advertisement in accordance
with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.
1This work was supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fel-
lowship (to P.O.K.), a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship (to
M.B.H.), and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Contract N01HV28183 and
National Institutes of Health Grant AI35304 (to G.P.N).
2P.O.K. and M.B.H. contributed equally to this work.
3Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. Garry P. Nolan, 269 Campus
Drive, CCSR 3205, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Journal of Immunology
Copyright © 2005 by The American Association of Immunologists, Inc.0022-1767/05/$02.00
The IL-2R signals through Stat5 and is primarily restricted to NK,
activated T and B cells, and regulatory T cells. Finally, the IL-10R
is similar to the IFN-?R in sequence, but IL-10 modulates the
immune responses of monocytes and macrophages to inhibit Th1
and is thought to enhance Th2 development. IL-10 signals via Jak1/
Tyk2 and Stat3. Again, the complexities of how these factors act
across multiple cell types to drive immune system function has been
difficult to comprehend in multiple populations simultaneously.
The MAPK pathway also plays an important role in immune cell
signaling by mediating TCR and BCR activation as well as re-
sponses to many inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-1 and TNF-?
(15). Previous studies have shown the utility of phosphospecific
flow cytometry in analyzing MAPK activation in T cell signaling
(10, 11, 16). Other mediators of MAPK activity include TLR li-
gands, one of which is the bacterial cell wall component, LPS.
TLRs are essential to innate immune responses and are able to
recognize conserved motifs in bacterial and pathogenic organisms,
such as lipopolysaccharides, lipoproteins, CpG DNA, and flagellin
(17–19). Upon binding to LPS, TLR4 has been reported to induce
both p38 and JNK as well as NF-?B activity. TLR4 appears to be
restricted to APCs, including monocytes, macrophages, and den-
dritic cells (20). However, measurement of phosphorylation in re-
sponse to LPS has typically been restricted to cell lines or has been
assumed to be due to surface expression of TLR4.
Signaling pathway- and cell type-specific attributes of stimuli
are largely cell-intrinsic properties, but can be modulated by the
external environment of the cells. By delivering cytokines i.v. in
vivo or adding them to ex vivo cultures of splenic cells, we ex-
plored the contributions of extrinsic factors such as stromal cells,
tissue organization, and serum/medium components in regulating
pathway and cell type specificity of stimuli. We therefore profiled
multiple tiers of the immune cell signaling network by measuring
the phosphorylation of four signaling proteins (Stat1, Stat3, Stat5,
and p38) in four cell types (B cells, T cells, CD11bhigh, and
CD11bint) in response to four stimuli (IFN-?, GM-CSF, IL-10, and
LPS) across time and concentration gradients. Cell-specific expres-
sion of cytokine receptors correlated with responsiveness to their
cognate cytokines, suggesting that phosphospecific flow cytometry
can complement analysis of cytokine receptor expression by mea-
suring actual functional activity in addition to surface expression.
Taken together, the results underscore a tightly regulated network
with notable and unexpected cases of cell type- and signaling path-
way-specific responses that are modulated by the external envi-
ronment. These results provide a comprehensive and physiologi-
cally relevant framework for comparison with signaling networks
that have become altered in pathological disease states (21).
Materials and Methods
Abs and reagents
All murine and phosphospecific Abs were supplied by BD Pharmingen.
The following surface Abs were used: CD11b-FITC (M1/70), B220-
Cy5.5PerCP or -PerCP (RA3-6B2), TCR?-FITC or -PE (H57-597), CD4-
Cy5.5PerCP (RM4-5), and CD25-PE (PC61). The following phosphospe-
cific Abs were used: pStat1 (Y701, clone 14 or 4a), pStat3 (Y705, clone 4),
pStat5 (Y694, clone 47), and p-p38 (T180/Y182, clone 30 or 36). All
phosphospecific Abs were supplied conjugated to Alexa Fluor 647
Recombinant murine cytokines included IFN-? (107U/mg), GM-CSF
(5 ? 106U/mg), and IL-10 (5 ? 105U/mg) from PeproTech and IL-2 (108
U/mg) from BD Pharmingen. LPS (Escherichia coli 0127:B8) was pur-
chased from Sigma-Aldrich. Formaldehyde ampules (16% in water) were
obtained from Electron Microscopy Sciences and used up to 1 wk after
In vitro stimulation
For all experiments, male BALB/c mice from the Stanford University an-
imal core facility in-house colony were used at 6–9 wk of age. All animals
were treated in accordance with university and Administrative Panels on
Laboratory Animal Care guidelines. Spleens were excised after killing
mice by brief carbon dioxide asphyxiation and cervical dislocation. The
spleens were homogenized in PBS and 5 mM EDTA, filtered through
70-?m pore size mesh, pelleted, and resuspended at 5 ? 106cells/ml in
room temperature to 37°C RPMI 1640 containing 10% FBS, penicillin
(100 U/ml), streptomycin (100 ?g/ml), and L-glutamine. Cells were main-
tained at 37°C in 5% CO2in conical tubes (to prevent monocyte/macro-
phage adherence) for 1–2 h before stimulation. Stimuli were typically
added for 15 min at the indicated concentrations. Formaldehyde was added
directly to the culture medium to a final concentration of 1.6%, and cells
were fixed for 15 min at room temperature. Methanol was then added
directly to a final concentration of 80%, and samples were stored at 4°C for
30 min to 1 h before being transferred to ?80°C for storage. Samples were
typically analyzed within 24 h, but could be stored for 1–2 wk (2).
In vivo stimulation
Stimuli were delivered to mice by tail vein injection in a volume of 200 ?l.
Typically, mice were killed after 15 min by a brief (30-s) CO2adminis-
tration and cervical dislocation. Spleens were removed and homogenized
directly in 10 ml of PBS containing 1.6% formaldehyde. After 15 min, the
cell suspension was passed through 70-?m pore size mesh, and methanol
was added directly to a final concentration of 80%. Methanol was added
directly to accommodate in vivo experiments where samples were offset by
5–10 min and thus required a method that avoided pelleting cells after
fixation. Samples were cooled as in the in vitro experiments.
Surface and intracellular staining
Cell suspensions in methanol were washed twice with staining medium
(PBS containing 0.5% BSA and 0.02% sodium azide), then resuspended in
staining medium at 107cells/ml for intracellular phosphoprotein staining as
previously described (2, 22). Samples were then divided to allow for anal-
ysis of multiple phosphoproteins (because one phosphospecific Ab was
added per stain). The same surface mixture (typically CD11b-FITC,
TCR-?-PE, and B220-Cy5.5PerCP) and different phosphospecific Abs
were added simultaneously for 20–30 min, then washed with 15–20 vol
of staining medium. Cells were resuspended in staining medium and
kept at 4°C before analysis on a FACSCalibur instrument (BD Bio-
sciences) equipped with a 633 helium-neon laser to allow for Ax647
excitation and detection. Data were analyzed in FlowJo (TreeStar).
Typically 250,000–300,000 events were gathered per experiment to
give ?1,000 cells for all populations analyzed. The median fluores-
cence intensity (MFI) was used to determine fold change upon stimu-
lation (fold change ? MFIstimulated/MFIunstimulated).
To analyze signaling events across multiple cell types, we first
defined cell subsets according to surface marker expression. After
fixation with formaldehyde and permeabilization with methanol,
splenocytes were simultaneously stained with CD11b-FITC,
TCR?-PE, B220-Cy5.5PerCP, and one of several phosphospecific
Abs conjugated to Ax647 (Fig. 1). These surface Abs gave accu-
rate and expected subpopulations after methanol permeabilization
of cells (we have observed varying efficiency of staining for certain
murine surface markers after treatment of cells with methanol
(22)). Forward and side scatter properties were used to eliminate
RBC and debris. B220 and TCR? staining levels were then used to
define B cells (B220?TCR??), T cells (TCR??B220?) and a
double-negative population (B220?TCR??). These double-nega-
tive cells were gated according to CD11b and side scatter to define
CD11blow. For general profiling, CD11bmidand CD11blowcells
were combined to form a CD11bintpopulation because the
CD11bmidand CD11blowpopulations did not always resolve suf-
ficiently to discriminate them clearly after fixation and permeabi-
lization. The CD11bhighpopulation, which is also Gr-1 positive,
includes monocytes and neutrophils, whereas the CD11bmidand
4Abbreviations used in this paper: Ax647, Alexa Fluor 647; MFI, median fluores-
2367The Journal of Immunology
CD11blowpopulations contain monocytes, macrophages, neutro-
phils, and CD11c?dendritic cells (23).
Protein phosphorylation was assessed by examining the fluores-
cence intensity of bound phosphospecific Abs in each of the afore-
mentioned cell subsets. An increase in fluorescence correlates with
an increase in protein phosphorylation (2). As an example, in Fig.
1 splenocytes were stimulated in vitro with IL-10, then stained
with the above surface markers and a phosphospecific Ab against
Stat3. Cell types were gated, and phosphorylation was measured
by comparing unstimulated cells to those treated with IL-10. As
shown, CD11blowcells had a large increase in Stat3 phosphoryla-
tion in response to IL-10. Similar analyses were used to generate
a more comprehensive profiling (see below) of immune system
responses to stimulation both in vitro and in vivo.
Global comparison of signaling in vitro and in vivo
To probe the immune cell signaling network, we applied a panel of
stimuli that would generate a profile of signaling responses in the
cell types defined above. For in vitro experiments, we added
IFN-?, GM-CSF, IL-10, or LPS to cultures of splenocytes for 15
min before fixation and permeabilization. For in vivo analysis, the
stimuli were administered i.v. 15 min before preparation of the
splenic cells (see Materials and Methods). The spleen was homog-
enized in formaldehyde, then cells were permeabilized. After fix-
ation and permeabilization, both in vitro and in vivo samples were
stained with the surface marker Ab mixture of CD11b-FITC,
TCR?-PE, and B220-Cy5.5PerCP in addition to pStat1, pStat3,
pStat5, or p-p38 Abs conjugated to Ax647 (Fig. 2). Phosphoryla-
tion of these four signaling proteins was analyzed in B cells, T
cells, CD11bhigh, and CD11bintcells in response to the four stim-
uli, generating a 64-point profile for comparison of in vitro and in
vivo stimulation. Shown in Fig. 2 are the histograms of phospho-
protein-specific Ab fluorescence in each of these cell types.
Upon consideration, the profiles could be characterized as dem-
onstrating cell type- or signaling pathway-specific outcomes upon
stimulation. Signaling pathway-specific effects were defined as
those in which the stimulus induces phosphorylation of a single
analyzed phosphoprotein across multiple cell types. For instance,
IFN-? induced phosphorylation of Stat1 in all cell types tested, and
GM-CSF induced Stat5 phosphorylation in myeloid cell subsets.
However, in most situations we observed that only certain subsets
of cells were responsive to a given cytokine. We defined such cell
type-specific effects as those in which only particular cell subsets
responded to a given stimulus. For example, B cells and CD11bint
cells responded strongly to IL-10 with increased Stat3 phosphor-
ylation, whereas T cells had a minimal Stat3 phosphorylation at the
dose used and CD11bhighcells showed no detectable response.
This indicated that IL-10 modulates B cells and CD11bintcells
much differently than T cells and CD11bhighcells. In another ex-
ample, only the myeloid cell populations (CD11bhighand
CD11bint) displayed Stat5 phosphorylation in response to GM-
CSF. These same CD11b?populations were the only subsets that
responded to LPS with increased p38 phosphorylation. Thus, GM-
CSF and LPS specifically and differentially drove activation of the
myeloid arm of the immune network.
It was important to compare corresponding in vitro and in vivo
profiles, because it has long been considered that there might be
important differences between the two. Critically, we noted several
cases of hyporesponsiveness and hyper-responsiveness after cells
were placed in vitro for stimulation. Hyper-responsive signaling
states in vitro were observed for two stimuli, IFN-? and IL-10. To
our surprise, T cells consistently responded poorly to IFN-? stim-
ulation in vivo (?2-fold increase in Stat1 phosphorylation),
whereas they responded the most strongly of all cell types tested
when placed in vitro (8- to 12-fold increase in Stat1 phosphory-
lation). B cells were also somewhat hyper-responsive in vitro, but
their response in vivo was more robust than that of T cells. IFN-?
itself was active in vivo, because CD11bhighand CD11bintcells
showed comparable pStat1 inductions both in vivo and in vitro.
The result is not limited to splenic T cell populations, because T
cells from peripheral blood are also hyporesponsive in vivo, indi-
cating that the hyporesponsiveness is not entirely explained by
access issues of T cells in splenic microenvironments (data not
In the case of IL-10 signaling, hyper-responsive signaling in
vitro was characterized by the induction of Stat5 phosphorylation
in myeloid cells in addition to the Stat3 phosphorylation seen in
vivo. In vivo, IL-10-induced Stat5 phosphorylation in CD11bint
cells was 4-fold less than that induced by GM-CSF, but in vitro,
the two stimuli were comparable. This augmented response to
IL-10 was also seen in CD11bhighcells; in vivo, the response was
negligible, but in vitro, Stat5 phosphorylation was about half that
of GM-CSF. In striking contrast, the CD11bhighpopulation had a
diminished p38 response to LPS stimulation in vitro. These cells
responded strongly in vivo, but their response in vitro was subdued
and inconsistent (this prompted us to perform kinetic experiments
with LPS; see Fig. 4). Thus, it is clear that signaling pathways
phoprotein analysis. Murine splenocytes were fixed with formaldehyde and
permeabilized in methanol, then stained with CD11b-FITC, TCR?-PE,
B220-Cy5.5PerCP, and a phosphospecific Ab conjugated to Ax647. Scatter
gating was used to eliminate cell debris and RBC, whereas B220 vs TCR?
gating defined B cells (B220?TCR??), T cells (TCR??B220?), and a
double-negative population (B220-TCR?-). The double-negative popula-
tion was then gated according to CD11b expression, with three populations
being identified: CD11bhigh, CD11bmid, and CD11blow. Note that the
CD11bmidand CD11blowpopulations did not always resolve and were
therefore combined into a CD11bintpopulation for phosphoprotein analysis
in some cases. Phosphorylation events induced by cytokines and LPS were
measured by staining cells with Abs against pStat1, pStat3, pStat5, and
p-p38 conjugated to Ax647. Phosphorylation was measured in each cell
population by analyzing the intensity of Ax647 fluorescence, with in-
creased fluorescence correlating with an increase in specific protein phos-
phorylation. Shown is a sample in which splenocytes were treated with
IL-10, and pStat3 levels were measured. Analysis of the CD11blowpopu-
lation shows a large increase in Ax647 fluorescence, and therefore Stat3
phosphorylation, upon IL-10 treatment.
Surface gating used to define immune cell subsets for phos-
2368 MURINE IMMUNE CELL SIGNALING NETWORK IN VITRO AND IN VIVO
respond differently in vitro and in vivo, underscoring a need for
determining the physiological relevance of what is determined in
vitro. In this study we provide a method for understanding the
relationship between in vitro and in vivo experiments and show
that they complement one another in understanding signaling
Interestingly, the responses to stimuli delivered in vivo were
characteristically unimodal, that is, all cells in a given population
responded equally well to a given stimulus (indicated by a single
uniform peak). However, in vitro, the responses to some stimuli
were strongly bimodal, suggesting that ex vivo, important, envi-
ronmentally determined signaling elements are missing for the
subsets of cells that appear to be nonresponsive or that negative
regulators are present in the culture medium. For example, the
CD11bintresponse to IFN-?, GM-CSF, and LPS was essentially
split between cells that responded strongly and those that showed
little or no response (Fig. 2). More detailed analysis and additional
experiments have shown that the cells responding in vitro were
slightly higher in CD11b expression (CD11bmid), whereas those
that did not respond tended to be lower in CD11b (CD11blow; data
not shown). Both CD11bmidand CD11blowcells remained viable
in vitro, because both populations responded uniformly to IL-10.
The uniformity of responses in vivo is surprising, considering the
complexity of tissue distribution of cell types and accessibility to
Dose responses in vitro and in vivo
In vivo, cell responses to cytokines are determined not just by the
presence or the absence of cytokines, but by graded responses to
their concentrations. We determined whether the effective dose of
cytokines added to in vitro cultures was similar to the dose needed
to elicit responses in vivo. We performed a dose-response exper-
iment with IL-10 (Fig. 3). IL-10 was chosen because we had ob-
served it induced a robust and consistent phosphorylation of Stat3
and had been observed in the profile to be cell type specific, with
only B cells and CD11bintcells responding. The dose-response
with IFN-? (800 ng), GM-CSF (200 ng), IL-10 (1 ?g), or LPS (5 ?g) in a volume of 200 ?l. Mice were killed 15 min after injection, except for LPS
treatment, where mice were killed after 5 min. Spleens were removed, homogenized, and fixed immediately. For in vitro experiments, splenocytes (5 ?
106/ml) were treated with IFN-? (50 ng/ml), GM-CSF (10 ng/ml), IL-10 (100 ng/ml), or LPS (1 ?g/ml) for 15 min before fixation and permeabilization.
Cells were simultaneously stained with CD11b-FITC, TCR?-PE, B220-Cy5.5PerCP, and pStat1 (Y701), pStat3 (Y705), pStat5 (Y694), or p-p38 (T180/
Y182) phosphospecific Abs conjugated to Ax647. Displayed are histograms of phospho-Ab fluorescence for each of the cell types defined in Fig. 1: B cells,
T cells, CD11bhigh, and CD11bint(combining CD11bmidand CD11blowcells). Histograms are colored according to the change in median fluorescence
intensity relative to control, unstimulated cells (black indicates a fold change of 1 (e.g., no increase in phosphorylation), and red indicates a fold change
of 5). The experiments shown are representative of at least three experiments in vivo and in vitro for each stimulus.
Global profile of immune cell signaling networks in vitro and in vivo. For in vivo experiments, mice were injected i.v. (via the tail vein)
levels of IL-10 with cell type-specific responses. In
vivo, mice were injected i.v. with increasing doses of
IL-10 from 20 to 2500 ng for 15 min before being killed.
In vitro, cultures of splenocytes (5 ? 106cells/ml) were
treated with 0.2–500 ng/ml IL-10 for 15 min before fix-
ation and permeabilization. Cells were stained with
pStat3(Y705)-Ax647 phosphospecific Ab. Histograms
are shaded according to the fold change in median flu-
orescence relative to PBS controls (black indicates no
change; white indicates a 5-fold increase in fluores-
cence). The experiments shown are representative of
two experiments in vivo and three in vitro.
The immune network senses increasing
2369 The Journal of Immunology
experiment would therefore confirm cell type specificity and si-
multaneously compare the sensitivities of cells in vitro and in vivo.
The level of Stat3 phosphorylation titrated with the dose of IL-10
both in vitro and in vivo. In vivo, B cells responded maximally at
a dose of 500 ng, whereas the CD11bintpopulation appeared near
maximal at a 5-fold lower dose of 100 ng. T cells showed a small
shift that saturated at 20–100 ng. In vitro, both B cells and
CD11bintcells showed maximal stimulation between 20 and 100
ng/ml. The small T cell response in vitro required a higher dose of
The results indicate that B cells and CD11bintcells respond to a
similar dose of IL-10 in vitro, but that the CD11bintpopulation is
more sensitive than B cells in vivo. To compare the effective doses
in vitro and in vivo, one can approximate the blood volume of a
male 8-wk-old BALB/c mouse as 2 ml, such that the 100–500 ng
used in vivo correlates to 50–250 ng/ml. This dose is remarkably
similar to in vitro experiments considering the much larger number
of cells that are stimulated in vivo as well as cytokine access to
Kinetic response profile
The dose-response experiment examined how the immune signal-
ing network senses the external environment by correlating levels
of Stat3 phosphorylation to the concentration of IL-10. Similarly,
the immune network must control its responses in a kinetic fash-
ion, for instance, to maintain resistance to pathogens as long as the
pathogen is present. Therefore, to complement the dose-response
experiment with IL-10, we followed the kinetics of p38 phosphor-
ylation in response to LPS (Fig. 4). Initial experiments indicated
that this phosphorylation event may be very rapid and transient in
vivo, but slower and more prolonged in vitro. Also, the response of
CD11bhighcells appeared inconsistent during in vitro stimulations,
showing some responsiveness, but not as great as that seen in vivo
(typically 2- to 3-fold less).
We therefore performed a time course from 5 to 60 min of LPS
stimulation. We plotted our data in two dimensions, showing
CD11b expression vs phospho-p38 (Fig. 4A). This was done to
visualize which subpopulations of CD11b?cells were responding.
As shown in Fig. 1, CD11b?cells can be separated into three
populations, CD11bhigh, CD11bmid, and CD11blow. Histograms of
phospho-p38 activation of these three subpopulations are detailed
(Fig. 4B). In vivo, only the CD11bhighand CD11bmidpopulations
responded to LPS. The response was extremely rapid, peaking at 5
min and disappearing by 15–30 min. Interestingly, in vivo the
CD11bmidpopulation returned to baseline levels of p38 phosphor-
ylation more rapidly than the CD11bhighpopulation. In vitro, the
response of the CD11bhighcells was heterogeneous and not as
robust. These effects did not appear to depend on the dose of LPS
used (1 ?g/ml), because using 10-fold less LPS showed a similar
response kinetic (data not shown). The CD11bmidpopulation, in
contrast, showed a very strong and reproducible response to LPS
from 15 to 30 min in vitro, with levels still above those in un-
stimulated samples at 60 min. These experiments show that kinetic
regulation of signaling differs substantially in vitro and in vivo and
once again indicates the presence of other factors that modulate the
responsiveness of immune cells to stimulation in vivo that are
critically missing during in vitro analysis.
Correlation of cytokine receptor expression with responsiveness
A final mechanism by which the immune network regulates sig-
naling is via cell type-specific expression of cytokine receptors. In
this manner, the immune system can restrict the involvement of
particular cell subsets to specific immune challenges. To examine
whether we could discern subpopulations of responsive cells
within an otherwise uniform population, we chose to characterize
CD4?CD25?T cell responsiveness to IL-2. These cells have re-
cently gained attention due to a correlation of high CD25 expres-
sion with regulatory/suppressor function (24–26). CD25 is the
ronmental factors both in vitro and in vivo. In vivo, mice were injected i.v.
with 5 ?g of LPS for 5, 15, 30, or 60 min before being killed. In vitro,
splenocytes (5 ? 106cells/ml) were treated with 1 ?g/ml LPS for the same
time periods before fixation. Permeabilized cells were stained with surface
Abs and phospho-p38 (T180/Y182) Ab. A, Two-dimensional analysis
showing CD11b expression vs p-p38 levels. Note the presence of the two
CD11b-int populations and their different response patterns to LPS both in
vitro and in vivo. B, Histogram analysis showing p-p38 fluorescence for
CD11b-high, CD11bmid, and CD-11blowpopulations. Time is shown in-
creasing from top to bottom of each set of overlaid histograms. Histograms
are shaded according to the fold change in MFI relative to unstimulated
cells (black indicates no change; white indicates a 4-fold increase in flu-
orescence). B cells and T cells did not show a measurable increase in p38
phosphorylation in response to LPS. Data shown are representative of three
experiments in vivo and four in vitro.
Kinetics of LPS signaling are modulated by extrinsic envi-
2370MURINE IMMUNE CELL SIGNALING NETWORK IN VITRO AND IN VIVO
?-chain of the IL-2R and forms the high affinity version of the
receptor along with the ?- and ?-chains. The ?- and ?-chains alone
form an IL-2R with intermediate affinity, ?100-fold less than the
high affinity form. CD4?CD25?T cells typically comprise ?1%
of the total splenocytes, but appear to be critical in regulating
autoimmunity and transplant rejection/tolerance (26).
We analyzed cells with a combination of TCR?-FITC, CD25-
PE, CD4-Cy5.5PerCP, and pStat5-Ax647 (Fig. 5). CD4?TCR??
cells were analyzed for their CD25 expression and Stat5 phosphor-
ylation simultaneously (Fig. 5A). In vitro testing showed a strong
correlation of CD25 levels to IL-2 responsiveness (Fig. 5C). At
low doses (0.1 ng/ml), only the most CD25-positive cells showed
a large increase in Stat5 phosphorylation (?6-fold). However, at
higher doses (10 ng/ml), intermediate and lower CD25 populations
also showed increases in phospho-Stat5. Note that cells that ap-
peared to be CD25 negative responded to high concentrations of
IL-2. In vivo, CD25highcells also responded to lower doses of IL-2
(10 ng) than CD25lowand CD25negcells (Fig. 5B).
Notably, however, in vivo, the response was not homogeneous;
only about half the CD25?cells responded to the lower dose. At
higher doses in vivo, all the CD25?cells responded along with
many CD25?cells. It is interesting that in vivo, the CD25?cells
only required 10-fold more cytokine than the CD25?population to
induce Stat5 phosphorylation, whereas they required ?100-fold
more in vitro. The total cell number of CD25?cells did not change
significantly between in vivo and in vitro analyses (data not
shown). Thus, it is clear that cell surface expression of a cytokine
receptor was not sufficient in making a cell highly responsive to
low systemic cytokine levels in vivo, but may be sufficient in vitro.
By using signaling pathway- and cell type-specific responses in a
combinatorial manner, the immune system signaling network is
able to generate a highly diverse set of functional responses despite
a limited number of cytokines, cell types, and signaling proteins. In
addition to receptors that are coupled to intricate intracellular path-
ways, specialized cell types express their own set of receptors, and
the activation of the same receptor on two different cell types can
result in disparate functional responses. This allows sophisticated
network behavior despite a limited repertoire of conserved signal-
ing proteins (primarily of the Jak-Stat pathway). Modulating both
these levels of the network is the organization of the immune sys-
tem into distinct compartments, further refining the immune re-
sponse and ensuring that it is appropriate for the tissue in which the
The analysis of immune cell signaling at the network level can
be enhanced by approaches that allow cell activities to be dis-
cerned individually within heterogeneous populations. In this
study we applied phosphospecific flow cytometry both in vitro and
in vivo to interrogate the three tiers of the immune network: in-
tracellular signaling (signaling pathway specificity), cell type spe-
cialization, and the effects of the external environment. The result-
ing signaling map serves as a guide for future investigations of the
immune network and addresses a key concern underlying many
experiments that support our understanding of modern immuno-
biology: that is, how well do in vitro cultures replicate the in vivo
A profile of signaling responses to IFN-?, GM-CSF, IL-10, and
LPS demonstrated clear cases of the first two tiers of the network:
signaling pathway and cell type specificity. Signaling pathway
specificity was highlighted by the induction of Stat1 phosphory-
lation by IFN-?, Stat5 phosphorylation by GM-CSF, and p38
phosphorylation by LPS. Cell type-specific responses were seen in
myeloid cells (CD11bhighand CD11bint) in their response to LPS.
In this case, it was expected that the presence of TLRs on myeloid
cells and their absence on B and T cells would dictate responsive-
ness (17). In another example, B cells and CD11bintcells re-
sponded to IL-10, whereas T cells and CD11bhighcells remained in
their basal states. However, the magnitude of the response in
CD11bintcells was greater than that in B cells, indicating differ-
ences in protein level or the presence of negative regulators within
the cells. Because myeloid cells did not respond uniformly to IL-
10, it is possible that the CD11bhighand CD11bintpopulations play
different roles during immune challenges that involve IL-10 secre-
tion. It is important to note that this is the first time such differ-
ences have been observed in primary cells. Indeed, one would
expect that with more stimulation conditions, more similarities and
differences will be found and will better define the role of each
particular cell type in the greater immune network.
This broad profiling also showed the influence of a third tier of
the immune network: the influence of the external environment/
tissue compartment on internal signaling events. In vitro, extrinsic
for 15 min before death. In vitro splenocyte cultures (5 ? 106cells/ml) were stimulated with 0.01–100 ng/ml IL-2 for 15 min before fixation. Cells were
fixed and permeabilized, then stained with TCR?-FITC, CD25-PE, CD4-Cy5.5PerCP, and pStat5(Y694)-Ax647. A, Lymphocytes were gated according to
TCR-? and CD4 expression. CD4?TCR?? T cells were then analyzed for CD25 expression and Stat5 phosphorylation in response to IL-2. B, In vivo dose
response to IL-2. C, In vitro dose response to IL-2. Data are representative of two experiments in vivo and three in vitro.
Surface expression of CD25 (IL-2R ?-chain) correlates with responsiveness to IL-2. In vivo, mice were treated i.v. with 1–1000 ng of IL-2
2371The Journal of Immunology
factors include tissue culture medium additives (such as amino
acids, sugar, salts, antibiotics, and glutamine) and serum compo-
sition. In vivo, extrinsic factors are probably more complex and
include the location of cells within the spleen, accessibility to cy-
tokines, proteins present in the blood, cell-cell interactions, and
local concentration of signaling molecules. Systemic delivery of
cytokines for in vivo experiments may not replicate perfectly the
signaling responses to endogenous sources of these stimuli, be-
cause cell-cell interactions and targeted secretion can result in very
high local concentrations of some cytokines. However, systemic
delivery in parallel with in vitro stimulation sheds light on how
signaling responses to these stimuli are regulated by extrinsic
In vivo, T cells were largely unresponsive to IFN-?, showing a
modest induction of Stat1 phosphorylation, whereas they were
among the most responsive cells in vitro. The length of culture of
cells ex vivo affected T cell responsiveness, with maximal re-
sponses seen after 2 h in culture (data not shown). We are inves-
tigating whether intracellular, soluble, or cell-associated factors act
to negatively regulate IFN-? responsiveness in T cells in vivo, or
whether extrinsic factors in tissue culture medium up-regulate their
responsiveness (manuscript in preparation). Because IFN-? plays
such a large role in the Th bias of T cells, this discrepancy between
in vitro and in vivo stimulation is of great importance. It is inter-
esting to note that a previous study has also shown differences
between T cell activation events in vitro and in vivo using the
phosphospecific flow cytometry approach (11). It was shown that
although c-Jun and p38 phosphorylations were dependent on
CD28 cross-linking in vitro, they did not require the CD28 mol-
ecule in vivo.
The response of CD11bintcells to stimulation differed signifi-
cantly in vitro and in vivo. In vivo, these cells responded uniformly
to IFN-? and GM-CSF with Stat1 and Stat5 phosphorylation, re-
spectively. However, in vitro, the responses were bimodal, with
approximately half the cells responding, and the other half remain-
ing in the basal state. In addition, in vitro about half the population
responded to IL-10 by phosphorylating Stat5 to levels similar to
those after GM-CSF stimulation. Thus, CD11bintcells were af-
fected in opposing directions by extrinsic factors. With IFN-? and
GM-CSF stimulation, they are relatively hyporesponsive in vitro.
However, when stimulated with IL-10, they induce Stat5 phos-
phorylation in vitro, but not in vivo. These differences highlight the
ability of the immune network to regulate signaling in a nonintui-
tive manner depending on the extracellular milieu. Questions arise
as to how these small differences might affect the signaling net-
work when performing long term experiments in culture, and what
factors are gained or lost to generate these hyper- and hyporespon-
sive states. Because in vitro culture conditions can be controlled
relatively well, it will be interesting to determine whether the ad-
dition of soluble factors or endothelial cell types can more closely
simulate the in vivo environment and help delineate the factors
critical to its appropriate regulation. The availability of a known in
vivo response makes such analysis possible.
For any signaling network to be effective, it must be able to
monitor and respond to different levels of stimuli. In a dose-re-
sponse experiment with IL-10, we found striking similarity be-
tween doses required in vitro and in vivo for maximal induction of
Stat3 phosphorylation in B cells and CD11bintcells (Fig. 3). Dose-
response experiments with IFN-? did not show such a strong cor-
relation, because much higher concentrations (?100-fold) were
required to elicit responses in vivo than in vitro (our manuscript in
preparation). Indeed, we expected in vivo experiments to require
more cytokine because of reduced cellular access to cytokines due
to adsorption by other cell types and the effects of tissue distribu-
tion. Although IFN-?Rs are present on nearly all cells (including
endothelial cells of blood vessels), the expression of the IL-10Ris
more restricted. Thus, more IL-10 may reach the spleen because it
is not adsorbed on its passage through the cardiovascular system.
The effects of extrinsic environmental cues were also observed
when CD11bintcells responded to a lower dose of IL-10 than B
cells in vivo, but to a similar dose in vitro. The CD11bintpopula-
tion may have better access to the cytokine in vivo or may lose
responsiveness as it is placed in vitro by down-regulating the IL-
10R or other key intracellular components of the Stat3 signaling
cascade. With these experiments, we have shown that the immune
network is able to monitor cytokine levels and that certain cell
types may be more sensitive than others, thereby generating im-
mune responses that may involve different cell types depending on
the severity of the immune challenge.
Another level of regulation in the immune system is the kinetics
of responses to immune modulators. The rapidity of response to a
stimulus as well as the duration of that response play critical roles
in determining the magnitude of downstream signaling and tran-
scription that occur. Kinetic analysis of LPS signaling revealed
interesting differences between in vitro and in vivo conditions (Fig.
4). In vivo, CD11bhighcells responded rapidly and sustained sig-
naling for 15 min, whereas CD11bmidcells showed a rapid and
transient phosphorylation of p38 at 5 min. In vitro, the CD11bhigh
population was essentially nonresponsive, whereas the CD11bmid
population showed a slower and more prolonged response from 15
to 30 min. These differences in kinetics are another example of
regulation by extrinsic factors. CD11bhighcells become unrespon-
sive in vitro, possibly by modulation of their TLR levels or by
differentiation in response to culture conditions. CD11bmidcells
show a more prolonged response in vitro and therefore may have
modulated the negative feedback loops that terminate signaling
rapidly in vivo. Thus, it appears that although CD11bhighcells
respond strongly to LPS in vivo in the spleen, they may not me-
diate culture responses when placed in vitro. Rather, it may be the
CD11bmidpopulation that performs this role.
Because cell surface expression of cytokine receptors is a crit-
ical intrinsic difference between cell types that regulates their re-
sponses to cytokines, we examined the correlation between CD25
(IL-2R?) expression and IL-2 sensitivity (Fig. 5). In vitro, high
levels of the receptor correlated almost linearly with IL-2 induc-
tion of Stat5 phosphorylation. In vivo, interestingly, the response
of CD25?cells was bimodal, with approximately half the cells
requiring 100-fold more cytokine to induce a response. It is pos-
sible that some of these cells do not have access to IL-2 because of
their location within the spleen, or that another cofactor or core-
ceptor inhibits their response to low doses. In vitro, these cofactors
might be lost, or critical cell-cell interactions may be eliminated.
We have observed this bimodal response in T cells in response to
other stimuli and are investigating its significance (manuscript in
preparation). The utility of in vivo experiments is quite evident in
this case, because the heterogeneity in response may help delineate
regulatory T cells from other cells expressing CD25. Perhaps only
regulatory T cells have all the necessary intracellular components
to be responsive to low doses of IL-2, and the expression of CD25
alone is not sufficient for responsiveness in vivo. Thus, as a system
by which additional hypotheses of immune function are generated,
the profiling and data presented show unprecedented opportunity
Immune cell signaling behaves as a tightly regulated, multitiered
network. Individual cell types act as nodes within the signaling
network and integrate signals from cytokines, environmental cues,
cell-cell interactions, and other soluble factors to give appropriate
functional responses on cell and system levels. Immune cells are
2372MURINE IMMUNE CELL SIGNALING NETWORK IN VITRO AND IN VIVO
highly specialized, and the manner in which a cell processes in- Download full-text
coming information and responds to it differs greatly by cell type.
In this study we examined regulation of the immune network and
intracellular, cell type, and organism levels. We present new evi-
dence that crucial signaling responses of great immunological sig-
nificance differ in vitro and in vivo, illustrating the caveats of mak-
ing conclusions from in vitro experiments. By examining the Jak-
Stat and MAPK pathways in the various cell types of the murine
immune system both in vitro and in vivo, this study helps to define
the multitiered nature of the immune network in its basal, preim-
mune state. Although not exhaustive, the profile gained provides a
better understanding of the immune system and provides a means
to detect alteration of signaling in pathological disease states, such
as cancer and autoimmunity. Such analyses will accelerate devel-
opment of therapeutic interventions for these diseases and provide
a basis for further mapping of the landscape of signaling geogra-
phy across the complexity of immune system processes (21).
We thank Roland Wolkowicz, Jeff Fortin, and Tom Wehrman for critical
reading of the manuscript and helpful discussions.
P. O. Krutzik has received consultancy payments from BD Pharmingen,
and G. P. Nolan has patents pending on phosphospecific flow cytometry
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2373 The Journal of Immunology