Subcellular distribution of Lck during CD4 T-cell maturation in the thymic medulla regulates the T-cell activation threshold.
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Mature peripheral T cells respond to foreign but not to self-antigens. During development in the thymus, deletion of high-affinity self-reactive immature thymocytes contributes to tolerance of mature T cells. However, double-positive thymocytes are positively selected to survive if they respond to self-peptide-MHC complexes; thus, there must be mechanisms to prevent overt reactivity to those same complexes in the periphery. "Developmental tuning" is the active process through which T-cell receptor (TCR)-associated signaling pathways of single-positive (SP) thymocytes are attenuated to respond appropriately to self-peptide-MHC complexes in the periphery. We previously showed that MHC class II expression in the thymic medulla was necessary to tune CD4(+) SP (CD4 SP) thymocytes. CD4 SP thymocytes from mice lacking medullary MHC class II expression had inappropriately enhanced proximal TCR signaling to low-affinity self-ligands that was associated with altered cellular distribution of the tyrosine kinase Lck. Now, we report that activation of both tuned and untuned CD4 SP thymocytes is Lck-dependent. Untuned CD4 SP cells contain a pool of Lck with increased basal phosphorylation that is not associated with the CD4 coreceptor. Phosphorylation of this pool of Lck decreases with tuning. Immunogold transmission electron microscopy of membrane sheets permitted direct visualization of Lck. In the absence of tuning, a significant proportion of Lck and the TCR subunit CD3? are expressed on the same protein island; this close association of Lck and the TCR probably explains the enhanced activation of untuned CD4 SP cells. Thus, changes in membrane topography during thymic maturation determine the set point for TCR responsiveness.