Recent studies have demonstrated that mature natural killer (NK) cells can be grown from human triple negative (TN; CD3-, CD4-, CD8-) thymocytes, suggesting that a common NK/T cell precursor exists within the thymus that can give rise to both NK cells and T cells under appropriate conditions. In the present study, we have investigated human fetal and postnatal thymus to determine whether NK cells and their precursors exist within this tissue and whether NK cells can be distinguished from T cell progenitors. Based on the surface expression of CD56 (an NK cell-associated antigen) and CD5 (a T cell-associated antigen), three phenotypically distinctive populations of TN thymocytes were identified. CD56+, CD5-; CD56-, CD5-, and CD56-, CD5+. The CD56+, CD5- population of TN thymocytes, although displaying a low cytolytic function against NK sensitive tumor cell targets, were similar in antigenic phenotype to fetal liver NK cells, gave rise to NK cell clones, and were unable to generate T cells in mouse fetal thymic organ cultures (mFTOC). This population of thymocytes represents a relatively mature population of lineage-committed NK cells. The CD56-, CD5- population of TN thymocytes were similar to thymic NK cells in antigenic phenotype and NK cell clonogenic potential. Clones derived from this population of TN thymocytes acquired CD56 surface expression and NK cell cytolytic function. CD56-, CD5- TN thymocytes thus contain a novel population of NK cell-committed precursors. The CD56-, CD5- population of TN thymocytes also contains a small percentage of CD34+ cells, which demonstrate no in vitro clonogenic potential, but possess T cell reconstituting capabilities in mFTOC. The majority of TN thymocytes do not express CD56, but coexpress CD34 and CD5. These CD56-, CD5+, CD34+ cells demonstrate no NK or T cell clonogenic potential, but are extremely efficient in repopulating mFTOC and differentiating into CD3+, CD4+, CD8+ T cells. The results of this investigation have identified NK cells and NK cell precursors in the human thymus and have shown that these cell types are unable to differentiate along the T cell lineage pathway. Thus, while a common NK/T cell progenitor likely exists, once committed to the NK cell lineage these cells no longer have the capacity to develop along the T cell developmental pathway.

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