Maintaining T lymphocyte homeostasis: another duty of autophagy.
First identified as a pathway for nutrient recovery during periods of starvation, the role of autophagy has expanded to the clearance of "toxic" intracellular material including ubiquitin-positive protein aggregates, damaged organelles as well as microbial pathogens in various cell types. We have examined the role of autophagy in the development and function of the adaptive immune system. Genes encoding autophagy machinery are expressed in T lymphocytes, and autophagy occurs in primary CD4+ and CD8+ T cells. By generating fetal liver chimeric mice, we found that thymocyte development is largely normal but the mature T cell compartment is severely reduced in the absence of the essential autophagy gene Atg5. Consistent with a critical role for autophagy in promoting T cell survival, Atg5-/- CD8+ T cells display high levels of apoptosis. Surprisingly, Atg5-deficient T cells were also unable to efficiently proliferate after T-cell receptor (TCR) stimulation. These findings suggest that autophagy regulates T lymphocyte homeostasis by promoting both survival and proliferation. In addition, T cells offer a new, physiologically relevant system to study the regulation and function of autophagy pathways in vivo.
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