The phenotypic similarities between natural killer (NK) and T cells have led to the hypothesis that these distinctive lymphocyte subsets may be developmentally related and thus may share a common progenitor (Lanier, L. L., H. Spits, and J. H. Phillips, 1992. Immunol. Today. 13:392; Rodewald, H.-R., P. Moingeon, J. L. Lurich, C. Dosiou, P. Lopez, and E. L. Reinherz. 1992. Cell. 69:139). In this report, we have investigated the potential of human CD34+ triple negative thymocytes ([TN] CD3-, CD4-, CD8-) to generate both T cells and NK cells in murine fetal thymic organ cultures (mFTOC) and in vitro clonogenic assays. CD34+ TN thymocytes, the majority of which express prominent cytoplasmic CD3 epsilon (cytoCD3 epsilon) protein, can be divided into high (CD34Bright) and low (CD34Dim) surface expressing populations. CD34Bright TN thymocytes were capable of differentiating into T and NK cells when transferred into mFTOC, and demonstrated high NK cell clonogenic capabilities when cultured in interleukin (IL)-2, IL-7, and stem cell factor (SCF). Likewise, CD34Bright TN thymocyte clones after 5 d in culture were capable of generating NK and T cells when transferred into mFTOC but demonstrated clonogenic NK cell differentiation capabilities when maintained in culture with IL-2. CD34Dim TN thymocytes, however, possessed only T cell differentiation capabilities in mFTOC but were not expandable in clonogenic conditions containing IL-2, IL-7, and SCF. No significant differentiation of other cell lineage was detected in either mFTOC or in clonogenic assays from CD34+ TN thymocytes. These results represent the first definitive evidence of a common T/NK cell progenitor in the human fetal thymus and delineate the point in thymocyte differentiation where T and NK cells diverge.

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