Research ArticleImmunology

The Duration of T Cell Stimulation Is a Critical Determinant of Cell Fate and Plasticity

Sci. Signal.  05 Nov 2013:
Vol. 6, Issue 300, pp. ra97
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.2004217

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Abstract

Variations in T cell receptor (TCR) signal strength, as indicated by differential activation of downstream signaling pathways, determine the fate of naïve T cells after encounter with antigen. Low-strength signals favor differentiation into regulatory T (Treg) cells containing the transcription factor Foxp3, whereas high-strength signals favor generation of interleukin-2–producing T helper (TH) cells. We constructed a logic circuit model of TCR signaling pathways, a major feature of which is an incoherent feed-forward loop involving both TCR-dependent activation of Foxp3 and its inhibition by mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), leading to the transient appearance of Foxp3+ cells under TH cell–generating conditions. Experiments confirmed this behavior and the prediction that the immunosuppressive cytokine TGF-β (transforming growth factor–β) could generate Treg cells even during continued Akt-mTOR signaling. We predicted that sustained mTOR activity could suppress FOXP3 expression upon TGF-β removal, suggesting a possible mechanism for the experimentally observed instability of Foxp3+ cells. Our model predicted, and experiments confirmed, that transient stimulation of cells with high-dose antigen generated TH, Treg, and nonactivated cells in proportions depending on the duration of TCR stimulation. Experimental analysis of cells after antigen removal identified three populations that correlated with these T cell fates. Further analysis of simulations implicated a negative feedback loop involving Foxp3, the phosphatase PTEN, and Akt-mTOR in determining fate. These results suggest that there is a critical time after TCR stimulation during which heterogeneity in the differentiating population of cells leads to increased plasticity of cell fate.

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