Research Article

Differential IL-2 expression defines developmental fates of follicular versus nonfollicular helper T cells

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Science  14 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6407, eaao2933
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2933

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(IL-)2 be or not to be?

Immunological T follicular helper (TFH) cells are a subpopulation of CD4+ T cells that support B cell antibody production and the establishment of B cell memory. By contrast, non-TFH cells orchestrate enhanced innate immune cell functions at sites of pathogen encounter. The factors underlying differentiation into a TFH or non-TFH cell remain poorly understood, though there is evidence to suggest that the T cell growth factor interleukin-2 (IL-2) may play a role. Using IL-2 reporter mice, DiToro et al. show that naïve CD4+ T cells that produce IL-2 are fated to become TFH cells, whereas nonproducers, which receive IL-2, become non-TFH cells. The CD4+ T cell–fate decision was linked to T cell receptor strength—only those naïve CD4+ T cells that received the highest T cell receptor signals were able to produce IL-2.

Science, this issue p. eaao2933

Structured Abstract


The adaptive immune system has evolved to mount different types of responses that are matched to the type of invading pathogen. For CD4+ T cells, this is predicated on the multipotentiality of clonally restricted naïve T cells, which differentiate into distinct subsets of effector T cells contingent on recognition of cognate antigen and cytokine cues from cells of the innate immune system. There are two broad divisions of effector CD4+ T cells: T follicular helper (TFH) cells, which are programmed to interact with B cells within lymphoid tissues to support production of high-affinity, class-switched antibodies, and non-TFH effector cells, including T helper 1 (TH1), TH2, and TH17 cells, which are programmed to egress from lymphoid tissues to orchestrate heightened innate immune cell function at sites of pathogen entry. The mechanisms controlling bifurcation into TFH versus non-TFH effector cell pathways are incompletely understood.


An impediment to understanding mechanisms controlling TFH–non-TFH cell divergence is an absence of early markers to define cells destined for these alternative fates. Unlike effector CD4+ T cells, which produce a diversity of cytokines that define their phenotype and function, naïve CD4+ T cells are largely limited to the rapid production of interleukin-2 (IL-2) when activated by antigen. IL-2 is only produced by a subset of activated naïve T cells, suggesting a possible relationship between IL-2 production and effector cell fate determination. To explore this, we developed two IL-2 reporter mice strains with complementary features that enabled the tracking and deletion of T cells on the basis of differential IL-2 expression. This allowed us to determine whether naïve T cells that do, or do not, produce IL-2 are biased in their developmental programming and, if so, how.


RNA sequencing of naïve T cells sorted on the basis of IL-2 reporter expression identified cosegregation of transcripts encoding IL-2 and Bcl6—the signature transcription factor of TFH cells. Conversely, IL-2–negative (IL-2) cells preferentially expressed the gene Prdm1, which encodes the transcriptional repressor Blimp1. Blimp1, in turn, antagonizes Bcl6 and the TFH developmental program. This suggested that IL-2 producers give rise to TFH cells, whereas IL-2 nonproducers give rise to non-TFH effector cells. Moreover, the fact that IL-2 receptor signaling induces expression of Prdm1 via Stat5 suggested that IL-2 producers resisted IL-2 signaling and activated IL-2 signaling in nonproducers in trans. Indeed, in vivo studies established that IL-2 signaling was mostly paracrine and that depletion of IL-2–producing cells selectively impaired TFH cell development. Finally, IL-2 expression was limited to a subset of naïve T cells that received the strongest T cell receptor (TCR) signals, establishing a link between TCR signal strength, IL-2 production, and TFH versus non-TFH differentiation.


This study provides new insights into the mechanisms that control early bifurcation of CD4+ T cells into TFH and non-TFH effectors. Naïve T cells that receive differing strengths of TCR signals stratify into those that exceed a threshold predisposing them to IL-2 production and early TFH commitment and those that do not express IL-2 yet receive IL-2 signaling, which reinforces non-TFH effector commitment.

IL-2–producing CD4+ T cells become TFH cells, whereas IL-2 nonproducers become non-TFH cells.

(Left) Strong TCR signaling via an antigen presenting cell induces Il2 and Bcl6 gene expression (red pathway); weaker signaling induces expression of non-TFH genes (blue pathway), including Prdm1 and S1pr1, which encodes the S1P receptor S1PR1. Bcl6+ cells (red) secrete IL-2 in trans to T regulatory (Treg) cells (yellow) and recently activated IL-2 cells (blue), up-regulating IL-2 receptor IL2rα and reinforcing Prdm1. (Top right) Bcl6+ cells engage cognate B cells (green) and migrate to germinal centers (GCs); Bcl6+ TFH cells mature into GC-TFH cells. (Bottom right) Prdm1+ cells migrate to efferent lymphatics and mature into non-TFH effectors in nonlymphoid tissues. MHCII, major histocompatibility complex class II; ICOS, inducible costimulator; CXCR5, a receptor for chemokine CXCL13.


In response to infection, naïve CD4+ T cells differentiate into two subpopulations: T follicular helper (TFH) cells, which support B cell antibody production, and non-TFH cells, which enhance innate immune cell functions. Interleukin-2 (IL-2), the major cytokine produced by naïve T cells, plays an important role in the developmental divergence of these populations. However, the relationship between IL-2 production and fate determination remains unclear. Using reporter mice, we found that differential production of IL-2 by naïve CD4+ T cells defined precursors fated for different immune functions. IL-2 producers, which were fated to become TFH cells, delivered IL-2 to nonproducers destined to become non-TFH cells. Because IL-2 production was limited to cells receiving the strongest T cell receptor (TCR) signals, a direct link between TCR-signal strength, IL-2 production, and T cell fate determination has been established.

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