It remains controversial whether the thymus-colonizing progenitors are committed to the T cell lineage. A major problem that has impeded the characterization of thymic immigrants has been that the earliest intrathymic progenitors thus far identified do not necessarily represent the genuine thymic immigrants, because their developmental potential should have been influenced by contact with the thymic microenvironment. In the present study, we examined the developmental potential of the ontogenically earliest thymic progenitors of day 11 murine fetus. These cells reside in the surrounding mesenchymal region and have not encountered thymic epithelial components. Flow cytometric and immunohistochemical analyses demonstrated that these cells are exclusively Lin-c-kit+IL-7R+. Limiting dilution analyses disclosed that the progenitors with T cell potential were abundant, while those with B cell potential were virtually absent in the region of day 11 thymic anlage. Clonal analyses reveled that they are restricted to T, NK, and dendritic cell lineages. Each progenitor was capable of forming a large number of precursors that may clonally accommodate highly diverse TCRβ chains. These results provide direct evidence that the progenitors restricted to the T/NK/dendritic cell lineage selectively immigrate into the thymus.
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