OVA peptide variants resulting in different pMHC affinities to the OT-I TCR were administered either to adult mice in which T cell development was arrested at the CD4+CD8+ thymocyte stage or to fetal thymus organ cultures from similar mice. Low-affinity variants promoted transient generation of OT-I CD4-CD8+ thymocytes (positive selection) and high-affinity variants promoted depletion (negative selection), although the affinity thresholds were higher in vivo than in vitro. Subsequently, naive CD8+ T cells transiently appeared in the periphery, and pMHC/TCR affinity during positive selection proportionally defined peripheral T cell TCR responsiveness.
The affinity for TCR interactions with self-peptide/MHC complexes (pMHC) in the thymus critically affects immature thymocytes that newly express TCRs. Previous fetal thymus organ culture experiments have indicated that difference in the affinity for thymic TCR/pMHC interactions not only determines thymocyte fate between positive and negative selection, but also affects Ag responsiveness of positively selected thymocytes. In the current study, we examined whether TCR/pMHC affinity during positive selection in the thymus would further affect Ag responsiveness of mature T cells in the periphery. To do so, OVA peptide variants were in vivo administered to TAP1-deficient OT-I/TCR-transgenic mice in which T cell development was otherwise arrested at CD4(+)CD8(+) thymocytes because of the lack of self-pMHC presentation in thymic APCs. We found that a group of peptide variants induced the transient generation of OT-I CD8(+) T cells in the thymus and the periphery. We also noticed that the affinity threshold for positive and negative selection detected in adult mice in vivo was higher than that measured in fetal thymus organ culture experiments in vitro. Interestingly, we further found that the affinity for positively selecting peptides proportionally affected TCR responsiveness of peripheral naive CD8(+) T cells. These results indicate that in vivo administration of a peptide can promote T cell selection in the thymus and the affinity for TCR/pMHC interaction during positive selection fine-tunes Ag responsiveness of peripheral T cells.