During thymic T cell development, immature CD4+/CD8+ thymocytes develop into either CD4+/CD8- helper or CD4-/CD8+ CTLs. The molecular mechanisms governing the complex selection and differentiation steps during thymic T cell development are not well understood. Here we developed a novel approach to investigate gene function during thymocyte development. We transfected ex vivo isolated immature thymocytes with gene-specific morpholino antisense oligonucleotides and induced differentiation in cell or organ cultures. A morpholino oligonucleotide specific for CD8α strongly reduces CD8 expression. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstrated gene knockdown by morpholino oligonucleotides in primary lymphocytes. Using this approach, we show here that the transcription factor Runx3 is involved in silencing of CD4 expression during CD8 T cell differentiation. Runx3 protein expression appears late in thymocyte differentiation and is confined to mature CD8 single-positive thymocytes, whereas Runx3 mRNA is transcribed in mature CD4 and CD8 thymocytes. Therefore, Runx3 protein expression is regulated at a post-transcriptional level. The knockdown of Runx3 protein expression through morpholino oligonucleotides inhibited the development of CD4-/CD8+ T cells. Instead, mature cells with a CD4+/CD8+ phenotype accumulated. Potential Runx binding sites were identified in the CD4 gene silencer element, which are bound by Runx protein in EMSAs. Mutagenesis of potential Runx binding sites in the CD4 gene silencer abolished silencing activity in a reporter gene assay, indicating that Runx3 is involved in CD4 gene silencing. The experimental approach developed here should be valuable for the functional analysis of other candidate genes in T cell differentiation.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Immunology and Allergy