FOXP3+ regulatory T cells (Treg cells) prevent autoimmunity by limiting the effector activity of T cells that have escaped thymic negative selection or peripheral inactivation. Despite the information available about molecular factors mediating the suppressive function of Treg cells, the relevant cellular events in intact tissues remain largely unexplored, and whether Treg cells prevent activation of self-specific T cells or primarily limit damage from such cells has not been determined. Here we use multiplex, quantitative imaging in mice to show that, within secondary lymphoid tissues, highly suppressive Treg cells expressing phosphorylated STAT5 exist in discrete clusters with rare IL-2-positive T cells that are activated by self-antigens. This local IL-2 induction of STAT5 phosphorylation in Treg cells is part of a feedback circuit that limits further autoimmune responses. Inducible ablation of T cell receptor expression by Treg cells reduces their regulatory capacity and disrupts their localization in clusters, resulting in uncontrolled effector T cell responses. Our data thus reveal that autoreactive T cells are activated to cytokine production on a regular basis, with physically co-clustering T cell receptor-stimulated Treg cells responding in a negative feedback manner to suppress incipient autoimmunity and maintain immune homeostasis.
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We thank Y. Belkaid for providing germ-free mice. We also would like to thank members of the Lymphocyte Biology Section, Laboratory of Systems Biology for their helpful comments during the course of these studies and critical input during preparation of this manuscript. This work was supported by the Intramural Research Program of NIAID, NIH and by the US National Institutes of Health (R37AI034206 to A.Y.R.; T32GM007739 to A.G.L.), the Ludwig Cancer Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (A.Y.R.), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (A.Y.R.).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
a, Representative flow data showing pSTAT5 staining of Treg cells from lymphoid organs as indicated after treatment with isotype antibody or IL-2-neutralizing antibody (1 mg per mouse) for 24 h. The numbers in the quadrants indicate the percentages of cells in each quadrant. pLN, popliteal lymph node; iLN, inguinal lymph node; mLN, mesenteric lymph node. b, Quantification of pSTAT5+ Treg cells (n = 3 for each treatment). Results are representative of two independent experiments. c, Detection of pSTAT5+ Treg cells in wild-type, IL-2-knockout and IL-15-knockout mice. The numbers in the quadrants indicate the percentages of cells in each quadrant. Results are representative of two independent experiments. ***P < 0.001, as calculated by two-tailed Student’s t-test.
a, A positive control showing immunofluorescence staining of IL-2 in situ, and the comparison of IL-2 detection sensitivity between flow cytometry and histo-cytometry. OVA323-339 peptide-loaded splenic dendritic cells (DC, cyan) were stained with CMTMR (5-(and-6)-(((4-chloromethyl)benzoyl)amino)tetramethylrhodamine) and injected into the footpad, and Rag2−/− TCR transgenic OT-II CD4+ T cells (green) stained with CMFDA (5-chloromethylfluorescein diacetate) were transferred 18 h post-transfer of dendritic cells. For each recipient, 16 h after T cell transfer, one draining popliteal lymph node was isolated for IL-2 (red) immunofluorescence staining, while the contralateral lymph node was isolated and dissociated into single cells for intracellular IL-2 staining ex vivo. Each dot in the middle panel of the upper row indicates a lymph node (n = 3, 3 lymph nodes total from 3 mice for each analysis). *P < 0.05 as calculated by two-tailed Student’s t-test. b, Immunofluorescence staining of IL-2 and pSTAT5 in lymph nodes from FOXP3–eGFP reporter mice. Upper row indicates an IL-2+ cell associated with clustered Treg cells among a group of pSTAT5+ Treg cells. Lower row indicates an unassociated IL-2+ cell surrounded by a group of pSTAT5+ Treg cells. c, Quantification of IL-2+ cells associated or unassociated with Treg clusters. Data are pooled from seven lymph nodes.
Extended Data Figure 3 Phenotypic characterization of IL-2-producing cells in the steady state in Il2WT/GFP heterozygous mice.
a, Representative flow data showing the phenotypes of cells from inguinal lymph nodes of wild-type (WT) or Il2WT/GFP heterozygous mice. b, Quantification of the percentages of CD4+ and CD8+ cells within GFP+CD3+ population from different lymphoid organs (n = 3, mean ± s.e.m.). iLN, inguinal lymph node; mLN, mesenteric lymph node.
Extended Data Figure 4 Histo-cytometry analysis of dendritic cell subsets associated with Treg clusters.
a, Immunofluorescence staining of an inguinal lymph node section from FOXP3–eGFP mice (upper row) and Histo-cytometry analysis of dendritic cell (DC) subsets (lower row). Surfaces for each identified dendritic cell subset are shown in Fig. 2b. In brief, a new dendritic cell channel (CD11c+MHC-II+CD3−B220−) was generated and used to gate on dendritic cell surface markers, as well as to create dendritic cell surfaces for subset analysis and visualization. b, Gating strategy for the phenotypic characterization of dendritic cell subsets associated with pSTAT5+ or pSTAT5− Treg clusters.
a, Representative images showing immunofluorescence staining of CD86 in lymph nodes from FOXP3–eGFP reporter mice. b, Histo-cytometry analysis of CD11c, MHC-II, and CD86 expression for dendritic cells (DCs) associated or unassociated with Treg clusters. c, d, Quantification of percentage of CD86high (c) and CD86 mean fluorescence intensity (MFI; d) in different dendritic cell subsets. Each dot indicates a section. n = 6, 6 sections total from 3 inguinal lymph nodes from 3 mice. ***P < 0.001, as calculated by two-tailed Student’s t-test (c) or one-way ANOVA with Tukey’s post hoc test (d). ns, not significant.
Extended Data Figure 6 The correlation between CD73/CTLA4 expression on Treg cells and their distance to the centre of Treg clusters.
a–d, Regression analysis of CD73 (a, b) and CTLA4 (c, d) based on images shown in Fig. 3e, g. MFI, mean fluorescence intensity. Each circle in a and c or each dot in b and d indicates a Treg cell. The red lines in a and c indicate the trend lines. The red lines in b and d indicate the mean. ***P < 0.001 and *P < 0.05 as calculated by one-way ANOVA with Tukey’s post hoc test.
a, c, Immunofluorescence staining of CD73 (a) and CTLA4 (c) in mesenteric lymph node sections from TracWT/WTFoxp3eGFP-cre-ERT2 and Tracfl/flFoxp3eGFP-cre-ERT2 mice 7 days after tamoxifen treatment. CD73 and CTLA4 signals were gated on eGFP+ Treg cells. Images are representative of lymph node sections from two mice for each group. b, d, Histo-cytometry analysis of CD73 and CTLA4 mean fluorescence intensity (MFI) in indicated cell populations from the sections shown in a and c. Error bars represent mean ± s.d. The dots in the yellow rectangles in the left panels indicate CD73high or CTLA4high Treg cells. The right panels in b and d show the distribution pattern of the gated wild-type CD73high and CTLA4high Treg cells (in left panels) in sections. Arrows indicate CD73high and CTLA4high Treg cells in representative clusters. ***P < 0.001 as calculated by one-way ANOVA with Tukey’s post hoc test.
Immunofluorescence staining of a 350-μm thick inguinal lymph node section from Foxp3-eGFP mice. Green indicates eGFP+ Treg cells, red indicates pSTAT5 signals, and cyan indicates B220+ cells. (MOV 9495 kb)
Two-photon intravital imaging of interaction between dendritic cells and wild-type (WT) or IL-2-/- 5C.C7 transgenic Rag2-/- T cells.
WT or IL-2-/- 5C.C7 transgenic Rag2-/- T cells (green) were each co-transferred with polyclonal CD4+ T cells (blue) into distinct WT host mice, 18 h post-transfer of PCC peptide loaded splenic dendritic cells (red). Imaging was performed 24 h after T cell transfer. (MP4 3802 kb)
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Liu, Z., Gerner, M., Van Panhuys, N. et al. Immune homeostasis enforced by co-localized effector and regulatory T cells. Nature 528, 225–230 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16169
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