The thymus provides a specialised microenvironment for the development of T-cell precursors. This developmental programme depends upon interactions with stromal cells such as thymic epithelial cells, which provide signals for proliferation, survival and differentiation. In turn, it has been proposed that development of thymic epithelial cells themselves is regulated by signals produced by developing thymocytes. Evidence in support of this symbiotic relationship, termed thymic crosstalk, comes from studies analysing the thymus of adult mice harbouring blocks at specific stages of thymocyte development, where it is difficult to separate mechanisms regulating the initial development of thymic epithelial cells from those regulating their maintenance. To distinguish between these processes, we have analysed the initial developmental programme of thymic epithelial cells within the embryonic thymus, in either the presence or absence of normal T-cell development. We show that keratin 5+8+ precursor epithelial cells present in the early thymic rudiment differentiate into discrete cortical and medullary epithelial subsets displaying normal gene expression profiles, and acquire functional competence, independently of signals from T-cell precursors. Thus, our findings redefine current models of thymus development and argue against a role for thymocyte-epithelial cell crosstalk in the development of thymic epithelial progenitors.
- thymic epithelium